There's hardly a more familiar title than Peter Pan: JM Barrie's forbiddingly dark and forever fascinating drama about childhood, growing up, dysfunctional parenting, pirates, man-eating crocodiles and flying has been endlessly adapted for film, theatre (plays, musicals and pantos), even ballet. Just two Christmases ago the National offered house room to Sally Cookson's devised production originally seen at Bristol Old Vic in 2012; now the Open Air Theatre stages a welcome revival of its 2015 version, that's alternately surprising and chilling.
The tone is set immediately by opening in a World War One military hospital on the frontline, where injured servicemen are recuperating; a newly wounded soldier is brought in dying. Meanwhile, men hunker down in the trenches beneath the front of the stage. On the centenary of the Great War, this has a fresh sense of urgency and timeliness; these injured lost boys of the war soon morph into the Lost Boys of JM Barrie's tale, as a nurse starts reading them the story.
Though there's a big loss in the fact that we don't meet the Darling parents (or the dog Nana that looks after the children) that usually introduces theatrical adaptations, there are big gains, too, as the story soon leaps off the stage - quite literally here, when Peter Pan makes his first appearance and flies high above the stage, in a brilliantly constructed harness that is counterweighted by another actor who mimics his movements on the side of it.
I've not seen flying that's as obviously theatrical - you can explicitly see how it’s being done - yet thrillingly visceral as this (the aerial artistry is by Wired Aerial Theatre). As co-directed by Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel, it moves with a special fluidity and sense of adventure - but also a tender, aching vulnerability. It all serves the story - mixing the realistic with the fantastical sense of adventure (pirate fights!) and jeopardy with rare ease. The theatricality of its puppetry (by Rachael Canning) is superb: Tinkerbell is summonsed by a puppet that looks like a cross between a desk lamp and a paraffin light, while a crocodile's snapping jaws are a small stepladder and its tail is a swishing piece of corrugated metal. With a new production of Little Shop of Horrors set to follow later in the season, there's also a brilliant moment that I won't spoil here that's similar to what happens there.
This is a magical, masterly production, set in the dilapidated shell of a field hospital created by Jon Bausor that also morphs magically into Neverland and a pirate ship, that's constantly playful but also deeply poignant. The sadness is caught in composer Nick Powell's hauntingly evocative score, and a large cast is made even larger by ten more students from East 15 Acting School and ArtsEd.
Not to be missed.
Peter Pan tickets are available now.