Imagine it. You’re on the train, heading to work. It’s not going to be just any old day in the office. It’s a big one, a day that you’ve been preparing for and thinking about for a very long time. Butterflies tussle with the cornflakes and caffeine in your stomach. You run through the presentation in your head repeatedly; you want to get the tone of every word just right. You arrive, you set up, the audience hushes to silence, and you open your mouth…
A teddy bear – your favourite childhood teddy bear – falls out from your neatly ironed work jumper, and lands on the floor in front of you.
Unwanted intrusions of infancy into pivotal moments of adult life open Expedition Peter Pan. The characters’ business pitches, contract negotiations and conference calls are ruined by paper planes, Lego and toy cars. Relics of childhood joy invade the grown-up world of responsibility, deadlines and decisions. It doesn’t matter that they are a “serious man with a serious job and a serious wife”, as a harried man with a briefcase full of paper airplanes desperately tries to convince us, or that, grown-ups “have responsibilities children can’t even begin to understand” as a beleaguered woman desperately declares whilst pocketing another handful of unwanted marbles: trying to stop whatever is going on from happening only makes it worse.
Though J.M. Barrie’s play and book are a celebration of childhood, it’s a sentimentalized and bittersweet portrayal which relies on childhood having a definitive end: Peter is singular for remaining ‘young and heartless’, while Wendy grows up to be the mother she always pretended she was, and Michael and John are packed off into the civil service or bank or some other career that is serious and requires a suit. Contemporary interpretations, like Steven Spielberg’s film Hook or Het Laagland’s Expedition Peter Pan, posit Barrie’s work as a reminder to keep Pan’s sense of imagination and childlike-ness into adulthood, even where the original text wasn’t sure this was possible. The tragedy of Pan is being consigned to permanent youth; the tragedy of the Darling children is being doomed to adulthood; but in these more recent Barrie-inspired works, the tragedy is not finding a way to take your child self with you as you grow up.
The spontaneous and unwanted eruptions of childhood into fastidiously grown-up lives in Expedition Peter Pan seem to suggest that, though you can’t keep your childhood with you as you grow up, neither can you cut it off entirely from your adult life. There’s no point denying that your inner child still exists, however mature and adult you feel yourself to be, and it’s better to release it every once in a while. A more psychoanalytical interpretation would be that the characters are desperately trying to repress their childhood trauma – the bullying, the rejection – and they are better once they have instead explored and faced up to it. Either way, the arc is the same: once their resistance is eroded and they accept the chance to “regress”, the experience seems cathartic and healing.
Even though this may sound like it’s all about adults and adulthood, the show’s greatest triumph is in its capacity to invoke the desired reaction from its young audience. At one point, the angriest adult launches into a tirade against children: “Can they take care of themselves?” (“YES!” is the unanimous reply from watching youngsters); “Can they empathise with other people?” Again, another enthusiastically affirmative response, and though a children’s theatre audience is likely to be receptive to young people’s powers, there is still significant potency in the passion of their cries.
Het Laagland also know how to produce giggles: expert exponents of polished anarchy, they smoothly transition from one hilarious sequence of controlled chaos to the next. Though some segments work better than others (a couple seemed a tad over-long or lacked pace), together they present a convincingly gleeful portrayal of the potential of play, and the best moments – the convulsions of involuntary boogieing, for instance, and the playmate who refuses to die – seem perfectly well-tuned to tickle young audiences.
Expedition Peter Pan is a raucous tribute to unabashed imagination and play, carrying a sincere message about their value. But if your old teddy bear does appear at work, it’s probably best not to follow the show’s example literally and dance around in fairy wings.
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