Welsh National Opera’s Peter Pan

Review by Flossie Waite
A Welsh National Opera Production
Birmingham Hippodrome
Royal Opera House 24th – 25th July

Peter Pan may be a story loved by generations, but the Welsh National Opera’s adaptation seems the brainchild of someone who doesn’t like it. That’s not necessarily a criticism – a play already overloaded with sentimentality is in danger of becoming sickeningly sweet if there’s an added dose of the creator’s nostalgia. Exploring unsettling territory, interpretations like this are just as useful as we continue to investigate why Pan endures, but Richard Ayres’s brutally dramatic opera is short on wonder.

This reworking takes us to the very darkest edges of the stage play, where neither the Darling household nor Never Land are very nice places to be. It isn’t thinking happy thoughts that makes the children fly; it’s the promise of escaping home and leaving Father and Mother.

The production focuses almost as much on the disintegration of the Darling marriage and the effect it has on the family, as it does on the boy who never grew up. In the opening moments we see the parents meet and fall in love, but just as swiftly, Mr Darling (Ashley Holland) becomes disinterested and unavailable – each day he boards the train to work, leaving a lonely Mrs Darling (Hilary Summers) at home. Though he still retains the element of ridiculousness apparent in previous versions, the frightening impact he has on his wife is real; she goes from laughing with the children to sobbing on her own rapidly.

In fact, Captain Hook (also played by Holland) is actually more agreeable and silly than Mr Darling, charting the Never Land seas in a pirate ship made from an old Circle Line tube carriage. This interesting twist on the traditional doubling continues with Mrs Darling. J. M. Barrie’s original intention was for the mother to double as the villain, hinted at here as Mrs Darling doubles as Tiger Lily, who holds a knife to Wendy’s throat and threatens Michael (Rebecca Bottone) and John (Nicholas Sharratt). No character, this production teaches, is truly likeable. From the bloodthirsty Lost Boys shouting “Kill, kill, kill”, to a heartless and selfish Peter Pan (Iestyn Morris); here, the pirates are not the only enemy – everyone is.

This is particularly true of Wendy’s (Marie Arnett) experience. A brief glimpse of suffragettes in the opening scene foreshadows the feminist thread of the opera, much of which is freshly created for this adaptation rather than taken from source material. It’s fairly commonplace in current reworkings that, in an effort to modernize the play, Wendy takes on a far more active role, and resists the pigeon-holing of the play. In the Welsh National Opera’s version, a constant barrage of misogyny has no happy conclusion. Wendy bitterly reattaches Peter’s shadow: “I’ll stitch it back on. I know how, they made me learn ‘cos I’m a girl”. It’s her sewing ability, much more than her storytelling, that encourages Peter to invite her to Never Land; as he repeats throughout the production, she “might be useful.” The Lost Boys reflect a laddy culture that defends itself by insisting women can’t take the joke. Removing the Lost Boys’ loving memories of their mothers found in the stage play, their demands that Wendy be their mother (at one point mobbing her with weapons held aloft) is rooted in laziness. When Tinkerbell ruins the ironing, Wendy is infuriated, but the whole male gang just laugh at her, berating her for not understanding that “it’s just a game.”

Peter himself has no real interest in Wendy beyond what she can do for him: he laughs when he sees she has been shot by Tootles, claims her successes as his own, and doesn’t even try to protect her from Tiger Lily. At least Hook, who initially insists “This is not a game for little girls”, is outraged enough by her releasing his captive to vow revenge on her; you get the feeling that everyone else on the island wouldn’t deem her a worthy opponent.

The set doesn’t feel big enough for the huge cast, and key moments are swallowed in the cluttered confusion of both who is doing what, and who is who – the range of costumes make it difficult to distinguish Lost Boy from Pirate. Tinkerbell is for the most part a projection, which feels too easy in a play that should ask its audience for imagination and suspension of disbelief, though ironically she becomes a real puppet at the moment she is dying.

In the end, the children do not return home because they miss their parents, but because they miss their things: hot baths, clean clothes and soft pillows. Librettist Lavinia Greenlaw perfectly sums up the apathetic return: “Let’s go home, who needs all this bother.” Peter Pan, however, refuses to leave Never Land; after all, he wants always to be a little boy and to have fun. But is any of it fun?

Image by Clive Barda

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