Peter Pan, Olivier, National Theatre, London, review: Peter pedals about on a Chopper bike and the place resounds to reggae beat

Following the well-received ‘Jane Eyre’, director Sally Cookson brings her original production of ‘Peter Pan’ to the National Theatre, after a sell-out run at Bristol Old Vic

Paul Taylor
Monday 05 December 2016 12:01
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Anna Francolini as Captain Hook is a magnificently frightening and pathetic crone
Anna Francolini as Captain Hook is a magnificently frightening and pathetic crone

The Neverland that’s imagined here is an urban adventure playground, the walls full of holes and sprayed with graffiti. The Lost Boys are scavengers, clutching their teddies, in a world where bicycle pumps can become pretend walkie-talkies, tin cans a telephone and scraps of corrugated iron the body of the Hook-hungry crocodile. The production sweeps aside the traditional Edwardian bric-a-brac in favour of an aesthetic that’s barer and 1970s in feel. Peter pedals about on a Chopper bike; the place resounds to reggae beat; a Carpenters’ number provides the accompaniment to the show’s loveliest sequence. But director Sally Cookson’s account – which began life at the Bristol four years ago and now re-emerges as the National’s family Christmas in this revised version, devised by the Companies – remains remarkably true to the spirit of JM Barrie’s original.

I don’t think that I have seen the crossover appeal of the piece, with its uncanny ability to enter into a child’s love of adventure and its melancholy awareness of the penalties of refusing to grow up, communicated more powerfully. The production ups the ante on what is playful and what is piercing. It augments the sense of magic that the flying scenes draw witty attention to the stage-craft involved, as the characters attach themselves to harnesses and are hoisted upwards or swing out over the stalls assisted by crew members who swarm over the scaffolding at the sides to act as counterweights. Saturday nights at the Lost Boys’ den become a cheeky nod to Strictly: Peter and Wendy start off shuffling awkwardly to “Close To You” and then rise elatingly to the occasion in lyrical airborne lunges at each other.

At the same time, Cookson offers penetrating psychological touches. With his spiky hair and bottle-green Drop Dead Fred-style suit, Paul Hilton’s excellent Pan radiates cocky charisma and a certain sulky desperation. The arrested adolescent look deepens our appreciation of how undeveloped Peter is emotionally. He narks Madeleine Worrall’s fine Wendy by his inability to see that there might be a serious side to their adult make-believe. When he refuses to join the mooted expedition back to London, he curls up miserably in the skip of a leftover pram, hurling out the pile of teddy bears to make room in defensive fury.

In this version’s most audacious and suggestive stroke, there’s a female Captain Hook who is doubled with Mrs Darling. Standing in for Sophie Thompson who broke her wrist during rehearsal, Anna Francolini is a magnificently frightening and pathetic crone with black wig concealing baldness, bejewelled teeth, no compunction about slitting the stomach of a teddy-harbouring pirate and a warped obsession with Pan, whom she pronounces “scrummy” when she gazes upon his sleeping form. It’s a twist that emphasises how fiercely Peter is opposed to the idea of mothers and their demands – the maternal principle is his deadliest enemy – and here there’s an interpolation from the later story Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens that goes some way towards explaining why. Warmly recommended.

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