Review of Peter Pan at the National Theatre
When you take a tale as old as time, the main challenge for a theatre director is to tell it in a fresh and newly imagined way. Sally Cookson’s interpretation of the classic J.M. Barrie tale is certainly an innovative theatrical experience, but one that at times seems a little unfocused and overstuffed. A show-stealing performance by Anna Francolini as Captain Hook (and Mrs. Darling), however, saves the play from walking the plank.
Cookson’s production is filled with colour and gender-blind casting to varying degrees of effect. Some of the most animated audience reactions come from the casting of two men in traditional female roles – a sturdy Ekow Quartey plays the ageing female dog Nana with a dry, deadpan manner that delighted both young and older patrons alike and Saikat Ahamed (complete with a tutu and a fairy light-covered cycling helmet) offers perhaps the most unique Tinkerbell in Peter Pan history. I already mentioned the terrific casting of Anna Francolini, who stepped in for an injured Sophie Thompson and gives us a female Captain Hook that genuinely poses a threat and triggers some well-needed dramatic tension within the production. The main problem in terms of the casting, however, is sadly Paul Hilton as the title character. Not to discredit Mr. Hilton himself, as you can sense his acting pedigree, but he is terribly miscast as the boy who never grew up. The idea behind it is a good one – to cast Peter with someone who is actually already grown up but wears a funky, green suit that suggests an ageless quality – but Peter should always seduce with his boyish charm. Hilton’s persona doesn’t entice in this way and you would be more willing to pass him by on a street corner in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, stumbling out of an Indie concert, than wish him to fly through your bedroom window. Through this misfire, the responsibility to carry the show falls squarely on the shoulders of the very capable Madeleine Worrall as Wendy. Her final scene in which she reveals to Peter that she has indeed grown up and longingly looks on as her own daughter Jane replaces her as his new companion, is the most moving of the whole production. I’m sure all ageing members of the audience will identify with the loss of youth and how we begin to enjoy magic vicariously through the younger generations.
I found myself in two minds when it comes to Michael Vale’s set design. The fact that all the magic of the tale is revealed and outed by having the bungee ropes, wires and all the rigging clearly visible loses a sense of wonder, but also motivates young minds to begin thinking about the craft of theatre and develop an early appreciation of the complicated mechanics behind it. It takes a good thirty minutes of narrative in front of a drab, cloth backdrop until it is finally whisked away to reveal what we have all been waiting for… Neverland itself. What we then see is a derelict space, overpowered by grey brick, where the young cast use their imaginations in their ‘playtime’ to create the magical world around them. Despite splatterings of brightly coloured paint, you can’t help but feel that the reveal is a little anticlimactic. You may find yourself longing for the explosion of colour that Neverland truly deserves. That said, however, there are some ingenious set pieces – the pirate ship formed from a skip springs first to mind – and the cast does a wonderful job of piecing it altogether as if they had only just thought of it.
Cookson’s version is perhaps a little unfocused as I’m not entirely sure of the demographic she is aiming for with this production. It’s by no means a classic, family-friendly show. In particular, Hook’s gutting of a fellow pirate and her incredibly dark and lyrically ominous Act II opening number are alienating to the children present, and the eclectic score with its reggae and jazz infusions strikes me as too mature for a children’s show. But at the same time, it isn’t billed as an interpretation for adults nor does it inspire to solely be this, and there isn’t enough in the production to please all demographics equally, so you leave the theatre confused about exactly who the target audience is.
I was fortunate enough to experience the Regents Park Open Air Theatre’s Peter Pan in 2015 and although both productions share similar theatrical tricks and devices, the National’s offering seems comparatively just a tad lacking in wonder.
What the Press Said...
"Although the keynote of this production is spirited exuberance, it is true to Barrie’s melancholy point that you either remain trapped in permanent adolescence like Peter or mature into a conformist adulthood."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"I loved its invitation to our make-believe, although some might judge it a cop-out: jaws may not drop at the flight from the nursery across London, and the rather rudimentary crocodile will hardly induce night terrors."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"There’s a frustration at the heart of this endlessly mutable play, a perpetual Pan problem when the action gets to Neverland."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard