Wendy and Peter Pan, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – review

A few years ago a version of Peter Pan was probably the worst Christmas show I have ever seen; now another version is certainly one of the best. This story always feels to me of a different species from other traditional seasonal offerings, in that it was created as a play (and moreover remains in copyright, howbeit through a bit of legislative gerrymandering). Changing J. M. Barrie’s work seems therefore to require more thought, care and argument.

Ella Hickson, however, is unafraid. She makes the story Wendy’s, that of a girl finding her own way without succumbing to the contradictory roles assigned her by her brothers and the Lost Boys alike: helpless damsel yet tireless and omnicompetent mother. The Darling children’s parents play out their own stresses against the background of Suffragism, while Wendy (an excellent and entirely natural Fiona Button) forges an alliance with Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily to win the day and vanquish more contemporary (yet also timeless) divide-and-rule sexism. Most daringly, a fourth Darling child is introduced, the ur-Lost Boy in search of whom Wendy travels to Neverland, and the acceptance of whose loss proves to be the threshold of her maturity.

This is a play jam-packed with content, and of course it doesn’t all come off; the second act cannot hope to pay off all the set-ups of the first with neat coherence. Yet the wonder is that so much of it does work, and furthermore works massively entertainingly.

Verbal anachronisms come so thick and fast that they soon cease to be worth worrying about. Guy Henry’s Captain Hook begins as a genuinely menacing figure complete with fearsome sickle, before morphing into a more Mephistophelean character wreaking his harm through smooth words. Sam Swann’s Peter is not just an ageless but also a mannish boy, summoning his comrades with Junior Wells-style blasts on a blues harp (there’s even an argument over whether a white boy can play the blues).

Colin Richmond’s set is in a kind of nursery voodoo style, casting magic by putting genteel domestic objects in odd configurations. Tinkerbell, when expanded from twinkling light to Charlotte Mills’ human form, is what The Who once called “meaty, beaty, big and bouncy”. Director Jonathan Munby sprinkles his own fairy dust to help matters fly over narrative gaps or stumbles, and in general to end my critical year on a high note. Clap hands if you believe? You bet.


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