Cookson thrusts Wendy Darling (Madeleine Worral) centre-stage, as her story arcs from wonder to understanding and impending adulthood, while Paul Hilton’s petulant Peter, in his outgrown green suit and arrested adolescence, remains fixated on childish exploits. Wendy falls for Peter’s spirit of adventure, but moves on to the next phase of life when she realises he’ll never achieve emotional maturity.
This Neverland is a desperate urban scrapheap, where Peter and the Lost Boys scratch a living under the malevolent watch of Captain Hook and her band of pirates. It was always J.M. Barrie’s intention for the actress playing Mrs Darling to double up as Hook, reinforcing Peter’s general terror and rejection of mothers rooted in his own abandonment, but it is rarely staged this way. Anna Francolini brings swashbuckling terror, deep-seated desolation and wanton unpredictability to her Hook, and comprehensively steals the show in Pinball Wizard heels and a fright wig, her eyes’ evil glint augmented by shiny metal dentures. Francolini deserves huge praise for making the role her own after stepping in when Sophie Thompson from the original Bristol Old Vic production broke her wrist in early rehearsals. Her menace lingers long after Hook’s demise, leaving traces in the demure Mrs Darling’s closing scenes, marking mother as Peter’s abiding nemesis.
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Tinker Bell is unorthodox too. Though the fairy’s first appearance is as a familiar flickering lamp behind a curtain, Saikat Ahamed’s ‘Tinks’ soon lands with a bump, and is a delightful muddle of good intentions and an acute incapacity to fulfil them. By contrast Lois Chimimba’s Tiger Lily, leading her tribe of wolves, is an unstoppable dynamo.
Cookson, whose acclaimed Jane Eyre will be revived in a nationwide tour in 2017, workshops her actors right up to opening night, constantly refining and updating, and due credit is given here to ‘members of the companies’ – from Bristol and London – for all that each cast member has brought to the table.
Costumes are a dreamy mix of nightwear and cut-throat couture, a live band in Neverland brings a jaunty reggae beat to proceedings, and the staging demands the audience’s alert imagination. Flying is done via highly visible ‘fairy string’ harnesses, with the actors buckled in before lift-off, and kept airborne by counterweighters scurrying into position on a surrounding scaffold, and seeing how it’s done only accentuates the magic and the fun. The corrugated ticking crocodile that made off with Hook’s hand and watch is a fitting ill portent in this unforgiving industrial cityscape.
With equal measures of joy and melancholy, this is a vibrant production to delight and terrify young and old as it examines the pleasures and pains of growing up, fitting in, or rebelling against the tide of time.
Peter Pan ended its run at the National Theatre on Saturday 4 February 2017. A recorded performance will be shown in cinemas nationwide from 10 June.
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Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
Production stills © Steve Tanner