THE LAST time I saw Peter Pan it was in a lesbian panto-reworking of Barrie's play at the Drill Hall. Here Peter switched from being the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up to the Girl Who Has Problems Admitting She's a Dyke. It turned out that our thigh-slapping heroine was in an oppressed majority, though, her sexual preferences were shared by almost the whole cast - Tinkerbell, Captain Hook, Mrs Darling . . . The bit about 'If you believe in fairies, clap your hands,' often a dodgy moment, became a raucous display of solidarity.
This year's adaptation, at Sadler's Wells, comes from the Black Light Theatre of Prague and, though there's not a breath of homosexuality in the piece, you wouldn't want to call it a straight version, either. The company specialises in a wordless, visual theatre, creating a mix of ballet and puppetry in which inanimate objects seem to float through the air, surreally mutate and vanish, bathed in fluorescent light and handled by a troupe of black-clad puppeteers, largely invisible against the black background.
All very striking, except that when you consider that this is a story in which - exhilaratingly - children learn to fly, you may think there is something a bit cock-eyed about a version where virtually everything is airborne from the start and in which, perversely enough, the children don't get to fly to Never Land under their own steam but are carried there in a levitating bed. Also, the Lost Boys have been well and truly lost in this interpretation, so that the whole embarrassing but potent dimension of the story about Wendy as a substitute mother (so awkwardly tied up with Barrie's own deprived boyhood) registers feebly, if at all.
It quickly becomes clear that the company is simply using the original as an excuse to show off skills that become more than a little repetitive as the piece wears on. There are, it's true, some delightful features. I adored the crocodile whose phosphorescent green-and-blue head always bobs on somewhere ahead of the rest of him. There's an amusing moment when the Darlings' tea table tilts over to show a shag-pile underside that smartly turns into Nana the dog, and another when a tulip sprouts from a pot and cranes down to become a shower-head emitting a water-jet composed of blue elastic lines.
But even on this level, the show misses opportunities. There's nothing about Peter's lost shadow, for example, and the comedy occasioned by Tinkerbell's jealousy of Wendy falls by the way. As for the strange subtext of the original story, this is replaced by simple, sentimental oppositions. Visually arresting as the show may be, in this version it's not just Captain Hook who's been amputated.
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