'Finding Neverland' might be bringing in punters galore at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on the other side of the Atlantic, but London also has a Neverland this Summer that J.M. Barrie himself would be proud of! And what a beautiful setting for this enchanting evening of theatre!
Directors Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel have put together the most creatively imaginative production I have seen in a very long time. The beautiful Regent's Park Open Air Theatre compliments the play perfectly, which pays homage not only to Barrie, but also touchingly to the fallen of World War I.
Re-telling of the famous tale of Peter Pan takes place in a WWI medical shelter, wracked with the horrors of the walking wounded and overworked nurses. After post from parents and loved ones has been distributed, one nurse (sat at the bedside of a blinded soldier) opens the book of Peter Pan and begins to read aloud to him and his comrades. This same nurse also turns out to be Wendy Darling, warmly and faultlessly portrayed by Kae Alexander. Sure enough, before long there is a knock at the shelter's window and enter Peter Pan - a mischievous and loveable Hiran Abeysekera - and off we go...
The real magic of this production is in the transformation of everyday objects into the wonders of Neverland. We are reminded of the power of the imagination and the beauty of suspending disbelief as a theatregoer. The beautiful touches Sheader and Steel employ are too numerous to name every single one, but the way hospital beds are transformed into mossy banks or Skull Rock itself, the way pyjama bottoms swim about as fish in Mermaid-infested waters and how a pair of ladders symbolize the snapping jaws of Tick-Tock the infamous crocodile, are just some of countless theatrical tricks that make this production so special. Another mention should go to Rachel Donovan for her impressive puppetry skills in animating a glowing lantern to create sidekick-extraordinaire Tinker Bell.
There is not a weak link in the entire cast and it's such a blessing in a show like this one that race bares no importance at all. There is also plenty of comic relief thanks to playful performances by cast members as the (actually much younger) Lost Boys, and thanks to Beverly Rudd, who refreshingly portrays Mr. Smee, in medieval outfit and with a Lancashire accent. Indeed all the pirate crew are dressed in amazing costumes, designed by Jon Morrell, which resemble different warriors from the pages of history - whether it be a Scottish barbarian, an Arabian assassin or Roman centurion.
Hats go off to Kate Waters, Arthur Kyeyune and Owain Gwynn's amazing movement and fight choreography, particularly in the end battle scene aboard the impressively mounted pirate ship. And just in case you are wondering, the flying sequences are done with bungee chords throughout the production to great effect.
The most moving parts of the play are perhaps the World War I themes. The inclusion of iconic songs such as 'Pack Up Your Troubles,' 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary' and 'Keep the Home Fires Burning,' is both beautiful and haunting and the play's conclusion reminds us that there will always be fantasy and escapism through works such as J.M. Barrie's, but the horrors of war and the tragic loss of so many young men and women is as real as ever and cannot and should not be forgotten.
Take the Bakerloo Line to Regent's Park, look for the second star on the right and follow your leader to the Open Air Theatre for this wonderfully charming and enchanting evening of outdoor theatre!
"Women are further presented as saintly care-givers by being Peter Pan-reading nurses in the wartime hospital. But if the historical concepts don’t always fly, the production happily does: this has family summer outing written all over it."
Holly Williams for The Independent
"Not everything works. Barrie’s original story is full of mother-figure angst, but the lamenting, angelic mother character who haunts this production feels a bit out of place. And it is never entirely convincing having adults playing children."
Claire Allfree for The Telegraph