Pros: Stunning set work and unique design elements across the board.
Cons: Some confusing reimagining to fit the story into the context of World War I, and at times a lack of depth.
Peter Pan is one of those stories we all think we know, but probably don’t. Like most of the Disney Classics, we have a rough idea of the main characters and one or two key plot points, but we don’t really know the actual storyline very well at all. Well, that was true for me anyway as I sat down in London’s most special of venues.
This confusion was deepened by the use of WWI as the play’s window into Neverland. Peter Pan’s Lost Boys represent the young soldiers that died fighting for their country. It’s a metaphor that never quite works, even if there are elevated moments of poignancy because of it. A trench circles the stage, creating a stark No Man’s Land meets Neverland backdrop for the play’s swirling, gentle mise-en-scene to float on top of.
The Japanese influences on both the set and music are great. This is aided by opera singer Rebecca Askew wandering around the stage during scene changes or even just for the sake of it. It’s a bit random but her voice is magnificent. Alongside the anime-like music, it creates a rich, colourful tapestry that binds the piece together.
One big question when tackling Peter Pan is: how do you make him fly? Without the darkness that an indoor theatre provides, it is difficult masking the mechanics that create the illusion of flight. In this production, they are unashamed and brazen in their use of actors, harnesses, ropes and pulleys, building it into the play’s choreography and populous disposition.
Peter Pan is played by Hiran Abeysekera, who brings a vibrancy and freshness to the role, even if it lacks any kind of weight or punch. Kae Alexander ramps up Wendy’s sensuality and spirituality, but again her performance is a touch lightweight. This adaptation dials down the sense of danger from Captain Hook, which is fine, but this needs to be replaced by powerful performances from the play’s main protagonists for it to really soar. The other Darling boys, Michael (Thomas Dennis) and John (Patrick Osbourne), are particularly inconsequential and unexplored, even if this is deliberate.
The best parts of the cast are the ensemble. The Lost Boys provide most of the play’s humour and sweetness, but it’s a shame that over the course of the two hours we really only get to know one of them – Tootles. The pirates, a patchwork of ninjas, warriors, knights and the like, are equally fun and energetic. Tinkerbell takes the form of a small, brass Wall-E like fairy, expertly manipulated by Rachel Donovan, another fantastic example of the merits of puppetry in modern theatre.
The play grapples with its central themes: growing up, feminism, motherhood, but seems largely uninterested in exploring them in a full and meaningful way. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable watch, but its struggle to properly engage with both its light and dark sides stops it from striking the emotional resonance it deserves.
Author: JM Barrie
Directors: Timothy Sheader & Liam Steel
Booking Until: 14 June 2015
Box Office: 0844 826 4242
Booking Link: https://openairtheatre.com/production/jm-barries-peter-pan