Peter Pan

Reviewed by Flossie Waite
A National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic co-production

Playing at National Theatre until 4th February 2017
For ages 7+

Giving the female characters a larger role is a regular short-cut to modernizing Peter Pan, from the RSCs Wendy and Peter – hailed as a ‘feminist reboot’ of J M Barrie’s tale – to tutti frutti’s Underneath a Magical Moon, which presented a more ambitious and independent Wendy. But though the women may be louder and more dynamic, their companions (and thus the struggle) stay the same. Time and again, we watch as a newly-assertive Wendy attempts to stand up for herself against the old-fashioned views of Peter Pan and the rest of the Neverland crew, to the extent that this battle, far from being a progressive reading of a century-old classic, feels tired. Sally Cookson’s new production at the National Theatre, on the other hand, does something truly radical – it makes the boy who never grew up a feminist ally.

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Image by Steve Tanner

Though following the trend for more empowered female characters, Peter Pan doesn’t feel gimmicky or faddy, drawing on elements already present in the story and its history rather than just modifying it. This adaptation switches up performance traditions: it is Mrs Darling (Anna Francolini) who doubles as the tyrannical Captain Hook, restoring J M Barrie’s original intentions. It was Gerald Du Maurier, the first actor to play Mr Darling, who persuaded Barrie to let him take on the pirate villain instead (thus confining Mrs Darling’s role, like Wendy’s, to mother). As Andrew Birkin writes in the Peter Pan programme, this doubling of dad and Hook doesn’t really make any sense. Peter Pan is a story about mothers – in early versions of the story, Peter is referred to as the boy who hated mothers, whilst the Lost Boys long for their mums and Wendy is brought in as maternal replacement. Doubling a female Hook with the Darling mother not only continues and explores this rich theme, but also makes for a more terrifying villain. Mr Darling is always a ridiculous figure who requires babying from his wife and kicks up more fuss about medicine than his children, and as Hook he can be similarly comic and cowardly. Francolini’s Hook, on the other hand, can be as kind and motherly as Mrs Darling, clutching a crying pirate to her bosom and stroking his head, before stabbing him slowly and carefully with her hook – she is exceptionally cruel and unbalanced.

Cookson messes around with gender and gender stereotypes more generally, starting with Nana, the Darling family’s canine nanny, and Tinkerbell, both played by men in frilly outfits (though they are still referred to using feminine pronouns, it is only Hook whose gender is switched). In the game of parenthood that Peter and Wendy play, it is Peter who insists on nutritious dinners for the Lost Boys and cosy nights in, while Wendy would rather a carbs and sugar diet, and be out befriending Tiger Lily’s wolves. As mentioned, Peter quickly subscribes to gender equality, sticking up for Wendy against her main rival, brother John, and refusing to take any nonsense directed her way from the Lost Boys. The audience’s respect for Peter Pan is not taken for granted but earned: we invest in the developing relationship between Pan and Wendy because it is built on kindness and loyalty, and we understand that Wendy, Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily fawn over Pan because he is brave, honourable and charismatic, not just because they’re girls and that’s the way the story’s supposed to go. Crucially, all this is achieved without compromising Peter’s true essence; he is both devilish and delightful, one moment giggling atop a passing cloud, the next ready to stab Tootles through the heart. By approaching Peter Pan from the same angle, recent adaptations suggested the interpretation of Neverland had been stunted, but Cookson’s approach has helped us to grow up and move on.

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