Review by Flossie Waite
Presented by Regent’s Park Theatre Ltd
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
15th May – 14th June 2015
When he originally wrote Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie couldn’t foresee that just a few years later, the boys that inspired it would be directly caught in warfare. And yet, watching this production in the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, you feel as though he must have known, and that directors Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel have found a version that was always there, waiting to be discovered.
Three of Barrie’s adopted sons saw action during the First World War, and one – George – was killed by a sniper near Ypres; it’s said he carried a copy of The Little White Bird with him, the book in which Pan first appeared. It’s easy to see the connection between the Llewelyn Davies boys and their lost generation, with the boy who never grew up. The centenary commemorations have seen more than one adaptation set the play during the Great War, always with the risk of being overly-sentimental and too obvious. Peter Pan in Regent’s Park is neither of those.
Instead of the cosy Darling home, the action opens on a fraught hospital ward for wounded soldiers. When a nurse finds a copy of the novel, Peter Pan, by a young soldier’s bedside, she begins to read it aloud. Through the large windows that look out to the battlefield flies Pan (Hiran Abeysekera), to listen to the stories of the nurse, Wendy (Kae Alexander).
This interpretation of Peter Pan is a combination of new text, the 1911 novel, and the final version of the 1904 play (which, for a while, Barrie rewrote or added to each year) – much of the opening scene, for example, is freshly invented. Whilst the majority of this production’s additions take place in the hospital setting, this adaptation still allows the original lines to be the most effective. When Peter arrives, Wendy calls to her invalided brother, lying in a hospital bed: “John, John! Open your eyes! Peter Pan is here!” “Is he?” replies John. “Then I shall open my eyes,” and he removes the bandages that have been covering them.
Allusions to the war aren’t overdone, but included just enough that you can take what you want from them. The traditional doubling of Mr Darling and the play’s villain is done away with – here instead is an officer having a hook fitted in place of an amputated arm. Is this character, originally based on an Eton master, and here aloof from the northern and cockney soldiers of the hospital, a nod to the many public school ‘old boys’ who became the officers and generals of the First World War? And whilst Peter Pan can often be seen as too nostalgic, or as a romanticized portrayal of youth, here that really works. That is how we view the boys who went to war, and that is how, often, war was justified to them – when John (Patrick Osborne) and Michael (Thomas Dennis) refuse to become pirates because they want to fight for King George, the sentiment isn’t too far from reality. “I feel that I have a message for you from your real mothers,” Wendy tells the Lost Boys when they are about to walk the plank, “and it is this: ‘We hope our sons will die like English gentlemen’”.
If this all sounds both serious and saccharine, rest assured it’s not. Peter Pan is a hugely joyful production, in which 100-year old jokes work just as well, and whole new layers of humour are found. Despite us watching someone attach his harness, Peter still crows “Oh, the cleverness of me!” when he first flies. Smee is, gloriously, played by the Sister from the hospital ward (Beverley Rudd), and there is an excellent moment towards the end of play when the pirates protest the bad luck of having a girl, meaning Wendy, on board, before stopping for a moment and looking wonderingly at Smee.
This production bravely rids itself of some of the more controversial elements of the play. Often the relationship Wendy (on the brink of puberty), Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily wish to have with Peter is played with very obvious sexual undertones, but this reading isn’t pursued here. Tiger Lily and her family don’t feature at all, and they really aren’t missed. What is explored in far greater depth is the idea that on some level, the story of Peter Pan is actually the tragedy of Captain James Hook (David Birrell), who speaks movingly about mothers and home, and seems to have been barred from family life in some way, just like his child nemesis.
One of the biggest questions for any version of this classic story is: does Peter truly fly? And the answer is yes, though the flying mechanisms are all visible. Flight itself is a collective effort, reliant on soldiers running up and down metal towers, or pulling ropes on stage, to balance whoever is flying with their own weight. At other times, the soldiers physically lift characters to represent flight. It’s impossible not to imagine that all of this is intentionally reminiscent of images we know of young men from the war – controlling huge guns and cannons, engaging in huge physical effort and labour every day, and carrying fallen friends across their shoulders.
The Open Air Theatre is the perfect setting for this play – covered in fairy lights and surrounded by trees, it is Neverland, though Jon Bausor’s set also cleverly creates trenches around the stage. Whilst pink blossom covers Neverland at first, early enough in the evening for the birds to still be singing, as night draws in and the sky becomes darker, the second half takes us to Hook’s pirate ship. A word must be said for the production’s live music, in particular the nameless Edwardian woman who stalks the stage singing songs from the war like ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’. As the Darling parents are nowhere to be found in this production, she is both Mrs Darling, and all the longed-for mothers of all the soldiers and Lost Boys.
In one scene of the Regent’s Park performance, when Wendy decides to go back to London and leaves the Home Under the Ground, Peter blows a raspberry in the medicine left for him, then begins to cry, which becomes a loud and violent laugh, before he jumps up and down on his bed, and suddenly falls down into a deep sleep. Whilst it may still be impossible to decipher what Barrie called ‘the riddle’ of this magical figure’s existence, this production shows an understanding that absolutely captures the spirit of Peter Pan.
Image by Tristram Kenton
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