running until 4 February
After a sell-out run at the Bristol Old Vic in 2012, Sally Cookson has brought her innovative take on J.M. Barrie’s childhood favourite to the National Theatre for the festive season for a journey of nostalgia peppered with contemporary edge. It’s got bagfuls of fun but is surprisingly poignant in its tale of growing up or being left behind.
Many of the traditional elements of the story have been retained, but this production – devised by the company – is far from twee. Its roughness around the edges captures a contemporary feel, and the audible delight of the youngest audience members proves it is certainly appealing to the youngsters of today as well as injecting a massive dose of nostalgia for the grown-ups. All the technical elements, from circus to costumes to props, show great innovation and exquisite attention to detail: the inflatable armbands on Michael’s teddy in the Marooner’s Rock scene are adorable, while large-scale sets and props such as The Jolly Roger and the crocodile are undeniably epic. While it feels like some debt is owed to other high profile shows (The Lion King in the wolf costumes, and Matilda in the swings), they are brief nods and don’t take away from the show’s dazzling originality. The decision to make the ‘tricks of the trade’ more visible is bold and works well: rather than hiding the magic of flying, the ropes and harnesses are woven into the show, with Peter even telling the Darlings that they need “fairy string” to fly. By confidently showing off the mechanics behind the show, there is no sense of magic betrayed if a wire is spotted, and it’s a fun way to introduce children to the stagecraft behind the wonders of theatre. It also demonstrates the skill that goes into the work, with the counter-balancing cast members visible as the lead characters soar across the stage and the front few rows of the auditorium. Nevertheless, the looks of wonder on the actors’ faces still uphold that feeling of magic; to tell the truth, I was very jealous. Flying looks awesome.
I was previously impressed by Madeleine Worrall as the title character in Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre (another Bristol Old Vic production), and here she shows similar skill in negotiating a part that is part-child, part-adult. Wendy is a young girl, yet she also becomes a surrogate mother to the Lost Boys, in a role that clearly shows she is on the edge of growing up. The ensemble of Lost Boys are funny and sweet without overdoing the syrupiness, and Ekow Quartey as Tootles in particular repeatedly pulls at our heartstrings. It’s all done in a surprisingly simple yet poignant way. And reigning over it all, Paul Hilton is a cocky and petulant Peter. It’s clever casting: our Peter is not literally a young boy refusing to grow up, but a man who refuses to mature and let go of childhood even if his body ages.
In fact, there are some bold casting decisions throughout. Replacing Sophie Thomson at a late stage due to injury, Anna Francolini is a fantastic Hook: malicious yet oddly mournful, she manages to counterbalance the traditional Hook panto villain characteristics with a sense of touching loneliness. By casting a woman the production adds another level to the repeated theme of mother-daughter relationships, which resonates throughout. It was wonderful to hear the young children in the audience realise that “Hook’s a girl!”, and then be as swept away by the character as they would have been with the traditional male casting. Katie Sykes’s costumes are a delight throughout, but Francolini’s is particularly brilliant: the corset bodice, huge silk purple crinoline-style skirt, and big stompy goth platform boots. The effect is gorgeous, but it’s most striking at the start of Act II when it has been removed completely, unveiling the vulnerable side of Hook.
Elsewhere Lois Chimimba is a confident but sadly underused Tiger Lily, and I wish we could have seen more of Quartey’s hilarious performance as Nana. Saikai Ahamed is an unexpected Tinker Bell, although the joke tires a little by the end; having said that, the giggles of children filled the auditorium every time he appeared on stage, so maybe this is one part of the show for the kids.
Costumes, set, circus skills, comedy, fairy tale and music: all combine for a sparkling, funny and charming adaptation that is sure to be a hit for theatregoers of all ages this Christmas. Cookson and her company strike the perfect balance between contemporary fun and nostalgic wistfulness. The final exchange between Peter and Wendy (“I grew up” / “You promised not to!”) is genuinely heart-breaking, and if anyone in the auditorium failed to clap their hands to save Tink’s life, they are surely heartless. Yet there’s also a relentless energy to the piece that drives it forward and makes this 112-year-old story feel as fresh as ever. Just as they did for Jane Eyre, Cookson and the Bristol Old Vic have reinvigorated a classic while holding onto its essential spirit and soul.
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