When I was a little boy, I cared a lot about flying. I spent countless months jumping off my garden wall, flapping my arms up and down, willing it to happen. What I didn’t particularly care about were my parents’ lives (which, presumably, included concern for a seemingly mad son). I rarely thought about their jobs, their taxes or their relationship. They were just there to enable me.
The bittersweet joy of this company-devised adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan – a co-production first staged at Bristol Old Vic in 2012 and now playing in the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre – is its perfect rendering of this self-centredness. “[A]nd thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless,” wrote Barrie, in a line that thrives here thanks to Mike Akers’ deft dramaturgy.
Director Sally Cookson’s production wows for its imagination, never for empty spectacle. There’s none of the soulless pyrotechnics you might see elsewhere. We’re supposed to notice the strings when the flying happens, because they’re fairy strings. Captain Hook’s ship is lit by the top of a lamppost, while the Lost Boys’ hideout is a split-level playground. Recognisable bits of the real world are fuel for childhood’s fierce creativity. Michael Vale’s entire set is a dressing-up box.
What’s so important in all of this, is that Wendy, her brothers, Peter and the Lost Boys are played by adults. It’s about more than enabling the story to be bookended by a grown-up Wendy telling her daughter about Neverland; in conjunction with the aesthetic, the makeshift make-believe, it adds a poignant layer about adults yearning for simpler times.
Cookson keeps this dual-view – the bubbling excitement of a kid, as they soar into a world of their own creation, and the adult who remembers the feeling – in suspension as skilfully as the team of counterweighters, jumping up and down ladders on either side of the stage, keep the cast in the air. The illuminated planets waved on lanterns as the children fly to Neverland have the quality of a remembered dream.
The cast are great. Madeleine Worrall’s Wendy stands out as a brisk but empathetic, compassionate figure, figuring out love amid the rabble of boys led by Paul Hilton’s scarecrow-haired Peter, with his mix of charisma, bluster and sulkiness. Hilton lightly undercuts Peter’s bravado with a clenched refusal to acknowledge growing up. His playfulness is also a running away, and a hard-heartedness.
Peter’s relationship with Hook is reconfigured in a way that brings new elements to their famous enmity. Anna Francolini (replacing Sophie Thompson, following an injury) provides both a kickass baddie and an anchoring character, in fierce defiance of time. In a standout scene, she sings desolately – in a lullingly off-kilter, almost murmur – about the struggle of life, as Smee puts on her wig, helps her into her boots and fastens her corset and hook. She re-makes herself every day.
Francolini’s enunciated sneer and fierce stare crackle as she revels in Hook’s flourishes. Amid the fun swashbuckling (choreographed by fight directors Rachel Brown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown), Peter and Hook are locked in a more complicated battle – one of motherhood, mortality and regret that ripples like a subtle undercurrent, without breaking the momentum of the show’s surface.
Because, from actors swinging over the audience in awe-struck flight, to Ekow Quartey nearly stealing the show as both a long-suffering Nana – trussed up in ridiculous clothes – and a bewildered Nibs, this Peter Pan never neglects the giddy rush of escape. Cookson fills the Olivier stage with noise and colour, accompanied by a live band silhouetted against a vivid pink backdrop, like something out of Jailhouse Rock.
But what had me – aged 36 – clapping for Tinkerbell before Peter had even asked us to is also what had me welling up when Wendy got older: this superb production’s compassionate evocation of how it feels when the time you thought you could fly has passed. But maybe you still dream about it.
Peter Pan is on until 4th February 2017 at the National Theatre. Click here for more details.