In this, the final year of centenary commemorations for the First World War, the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has opened its summer season with a revival of their acclaimed WWI-set Peter Pan. The show was Olivier Award-nominated when it premiered in 2015 and it’s easy to see why – Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel’s version is charming, inventive and beautiful to behold, while drawing out all the brutality at the heart of JM Barrie’s timeless story.
It’s Barrie’s script they’re using, although co-directors Sheader and Steel and their company have worked together to devise the framing device the story sits in, locating us in a pressurised field hospital at the fag-end of a brutal war. Jon Bausor’s set has a chilly extreme realism, more trench than the trenches, and the stage is full of wheely beds of wounded boys who look barely old enough to drink, all competing for the motherly affections of their put-upon young nurse.
As soon as she starts reading one of the boys a story, Pan begans in earnest and, except for aesthetic styling and supernumeraries, WWI is almost dispensed with for most of the show – which is the kind of thing that usually pisses me off, but here, it really works. It’s hard not to wonder at that the whole way through, at the fact that, in the wrong hands, all of it could so easily be too neat and cloying: the lost boys, the abandoned mothers by open windows, the Boys’ Own adventure-hood of it. But it’s beautiful. For lots of reasons, that link really works, and reducing it to set dressing allows this talented creative team to have their cake and eat it: to revel in the rollicking adventure that is Peter Pan (and it really is a bloody good story, still), while recognising that this was the milk and honey a whole generation was raised on just a few years before being sent to the slaughter.
Sheader and Steel’s production has room for all the fun of Pan, a story that’s kept audiences hooked (sorry) since Christmas 1904 – but it also acknowledges the bleak undertones inherent in restaging a story in which children face death with stiff-upper-lips and mothers ask their little boys to die like English gentlemen. After all, Peter Pan is a story surrounded by death: from Barrie’s brave and daring older brother, who fell through the ice and died the day before his fourteenth birthday (Barrie’s mother, inconsolable at the loss of her favourite son, took comfort only in the fact that he would never, now, grow old and leave her), to the Llewelyn Davies boys Barrie famously adopted and began the story with, two of whom died in their early twenties, one shot by a sniper in France.
The brutality of Peter’s forgetting Wendy, the casual cruelty of children, the tragedy of Peter’s lost (abandoned) adulthood is all there in the story, and drawn out with surprising grace here, in amongst all the power and joy of the original. And what joy it is – the further we get through Pan, the more Bausor’s set blossoms into life, and by the time we reach our band of monstrous pirates – a real highlight, with scene-chewing brilliance from Dennis Herdman as Hook, and Caroline Deyga (of Our Ladies fame) making a delightful Smee – the show has the air of a summer panto.
It’s a family friendly night of genuinely lovely theatre, filled with music, puppets and buckets of innovation, but it’s also surprisingly moving. By having the story grow out of a ward at what feels like the end of civilisation, where rich old men have sent their nations’ children to murder each other in droves, we see the potential of stories to endure, to console and to provide salvation in the most unlikely places – and the responsibility of those stories to urge their readers to seek glory not in death, but in life: an awfully big adventure after all.
Peter Pan is on until 15 June 2018 at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Click here for more details.