Theatre Interlude: Wendy and Peter Pan

12 Jan

WendyPeter

Back in the 1990s I enjoyed a couple of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s seasonal productions for family audiences at the Barbican in London. I can remember both Alan Bennett’s adaptation of  ‘Wind in the Willows’ and Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. Just because my youngest son will shortly be 17 doesn’t seem to be any reason for stopping, so yesterday I took the family off to Stratford to watch ‘Wendy and Peter Pan’, a feminist re-telling of J.M. Barrie’s classic story.

Just a couple of years ago said son’s school mounted a remarkably accomplished production of Barrie’s own ‘Peter Pan’ play so I was interested in watching a production which told the same tale from a different perspective. Most blog readers will be aware of the broad Peter Pan storyline which was first told in 1904. I expect that the animated Disney film of  1953 is the best known version – but there’s also the 2004 live action film and several stage versions of which the current telling, by Ella Hickson is the latest.

The main theatre auditorium at Stratford is such a well-designed space that it gives every production a little boost before it even starts and this was no exception. In addition, the RSC’s reliably inventive  set and lighting design (by Colin Richmond and Oliver Fenwick) contributed a lot to the production, not least the aerial work.

Fiona Button (as Wendy) and Sam Swann (Peter) together with Guy Henry as Captain Hook played the lead roles but the performances that impressed most were those of the Lost Boys (especially Josh Williams as Tootles and Dafydd Llyr Williams as Curly), of Arthur Kyeyune (acting a crocodile cannot be easy using only physical theatre and without a crocodile ‘costume’) and of Charlotte Mills (as Tink the fairy). The play is very much an ensemble piece and for me the only weak performance was that of Tiger Lily who too often rushed her lines at the expense of audibility.

Jonathan Munby‘s direction was very good but really the whole play’s success depends on the new insights Ella Hickson brought to the script and her decision to focus on the character of Wendy rather than Peter. This was inspired. Barrie’s original imagining of  Peter as ‘the boy who never grew up’ did mean his character is a little two-dimensional and the original story was very’ male’ with lots of pirates, lost boys and brothers with the few female characters (Wendy, Mrs Darling, Tinkerbell and Toger Lily) confined to almost cameo roles.

In the new version, Hickson’s Wendy is a girl on the the cusp of becoming a young woman and realising that growing up might be more exciting and empowering than simply conforming to stereotypical expectations. And also coming to understand that a role of ‘mothering her brothers, Peter and the Lost Boys’ is both narrower and less fulfilling than finding things for herself.  This is done in a cleverly understated way by Fiona Button, rather than stridently (not least through her costume, which changes from a little-girl’s white nightdress and bare feet to a teenager’s blue dress and ankle boots when she drinks grog and dances with the pirates)! It’s also written in a way that had something to say to the adults in the audience as well as the children.

In contrast to this, Hickson’s Peter is less sympathetic: good-hearted but thoughtless and almost exasperatingly impulsive.  In addition the links to the Pan of Greek mythology are certainly there – with his red quiff suggestive of horns  and qualities more alien than little-boyish, although no suggestion of Pan’s satyr-like qualities.

The other dimension developed in Ella Hickson’s play is that of death: The motive for Wendy’s journey to Neverland is to bring back a brother ‘lost’ to fatal illness. Again this was shown in a gentle, understated way which could speak both to children and to adults.

Of course there was all the action expected of the original narrative with planks being walked and Captain Hook conforming to the role expected of him and suitably villainous pirates.

Overall it was very good. Not great but certainly four out of five stars. And it’s playing until March – so some tickets may be available.

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One Response to “Theatre Interlude: Wendy and Peter Pan”

  1. esther millson January 22, 2014 at 8:58 pm #

    Four members of my family – ranging in age from 80 to 11 – enjoyed it thoroughly. The two female members (at each end of the age range) were, apparently, disappointed by the non-appearance of mermaids…

    But, otherwise, this was considered great.

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