Saturday 4 January 2014

Theatre review: Wendy and Peter Pan

Peter Pan gets a feminist makeover from Ella Hickson in the latest RSC family show, but there's also a definite hint of Philip Pullman being thrown in with the J.M. Barrie in Wendy and Peter Pan. And before we even get to these new underlying themes there's a new look to the Darling family right from the start: As well as Wendy, John and Michael, there's a fourth child, Tom (Colin Ryan.) But even as he plays with his sister and brothers he has a nasty case of Period Drama Cough that soon sees Tom dead, and the Darling family plunged into melancholy. A year later, a flying boy enters the children's bedroom and invites them to Neverland. Hearing that that's where the Lost Boys live, Wendy agrees to join Peter Pan on his adventures, believing she'll be able to find their own lost boy there too.

As the flipped new title suggests, Fiona Button's Wendy is very much at the centre of Wendy and Peter Pan; not only do we get her side of the story, she's often the driving force of it. Nicely topical, the imposition of gender roles is a theme from the start, Wendy designated as a damsel in distress if she's allowed into the boys' games at all, when all she really wants to do is swashbuckle alongside them.

This isn't to say that Hickson's take on the story is a pretentiously intellectual reimagining that forgets the children who'll form its core audience: There's plenty of swordfights, comedy, a scary crocodile from Arthur Kyeyune, and of course inventive flying to keep the spectacle going, and there were a lot of excited kids' cries to be heard in today's matinee audience. But there's some interesting layers to keep the adults' minds from glazing over as well: As Wendy fights to be recognised as more than a mother figure in Neverland, we have flashes back to London, where their father (Andrew Woodall) is nervous about Mrs Darling's (Rebecca Johnson) interest in the suffragettes.

Wendy isn't the only character who doesn't quite fit into gender stereotypes: Her brother Michael (Brodie Ross) is mainly the resident science geek, but there's also a suggestion that his interest in taffeta and mermaids makes some of his family uncomfortable. Even more overt is Smee's (Gregory Gudgeon) love for Guy Henry's Captain Hook, while the outsider theme continues with Martin the Cabin Boy (Jamie Wilkes,) a pirate in socks and sandals who's not sure he's on the right side, and a Tinkerbell (Charlotte Mills) who "gets big" when she's emotional, but quickly shuts down any suggestion that her weight is anyone else's business.

As the play goes on there's also a strong echo of His Dark Materials, as the moment at which children begin to discover their sexuality becomes a theme - and, as with Pullman's work, this is seen as something to be embraced rather than a tragic loss of innocence. John (Jolyon Coy, who must be starting to think that acting is something you can only do while wearing pyjamas,) discovers some surprising new feelings when he meets Michelle Asante's Tiger Lily. But it's Sam Swann's Peter who seems forever trapped in that moment of impending adulthood. His isn't a Peter Pan who's an eternal child, but one who's arrested his growth a little too late, so he constantly feels the pull of the grown-up feelings towards Wendy he knows should mean leaving childhood behind. It makes him a tragic figure, and a particularly damaged take on the character - his monkey impressions and dances are part diversion tactic, part signs of madness.

The RST's deep thrust stage should make flying sequences tricky, but Colin Richmond's design cleverly solves this with the flying rig disguised as a giant mobile in the nursery. And, like Hank Marvin, Peter has many Shadows behind him, a team of actors carrying the cast when they need to fly low nearer the stage. The journey to Neverland provides great spectacle as does the first appearance of the Jolly Roger, although the way scenes on it are staged rather draws attention to the fact that it's size is more pedalo than pirate schooner.

Considering the stage it's on, Jonathan Munby's production keeps surprisingly detached from the audience, which means one of the most famous moments of audience participation in children's literature feels incredibly awkward when it arrives. And Henry makes for a pretty bland Hook, although he's not helped by the script - Hickson's cleverness getting the better of her at last, as the attempt to highlight the similarities between Peter and Hook leaves the latter with a bit of an identity crisis. But there's not much else to complain about in what must surely be one of the most densely layered family shows out there right now.

Wendy and Peter Pan by Ella Hickson, adapted from the novel by J.M. Barrie, is booking until the 2nd of March at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.


  1. Spot on review. While entranced by their own cleverness, the playwright fails to notice how ludicrous Mr. Darling's tearful self-emasculation is. My 6 year old says that he believes in Father Christmas, but this patriarchal hegemony nonsense is just clearly made up. Kudos to the set designers who wowed the children with in each act.

    1. Not sure how my review's "spot on" if you disagree with it that much, but thanks.