Cora Kirk as Wendy and Theo Cowan as John. Photo Johan Persson
An abandoned hardback copy of Peter Pan, lying centre stage, reassures you that you are, in fact, in the right place, as you take your seats in the open air theatre. The set comprises a tattered Union Flag hanging over a World War One field hospital, surrounded by trenches daubed with barbed wire and sandbags. The imposing whoosh of a bomber overhead gets us underway, and suddenly the hospital, and its nurses, is overwhelmed with desperate and wounded soldiers - our lost boys - sharing memories, news and packages from home. A dismembered Kitchener-esque Officer storms into the fray, and ominously reveals a prosthetic metal hook…
Juxtaposition is used to great effect throughout, with spells of slapstick swashbuckling sharply punctuated with sombre wartime melodies, military drumming, and nursery rhymes sung by a haunting unacknowledged mother figure (Rebecca Thorn) and a company of soldiers
Returning to the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre for its second run, Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel’s Peter Pan cleverly re-frames Never Land onto the battlefields of the First World War, with affecting results. The production has been revisited to coincide with the centenary commemorations for the end of ‘The Great War’; a tragically relevant association. First performed in London in 1904, J.M Barrie drew inspiration for his original play from his time caring for the four young orphaned Llewelyn Davies brothers in London’s Kensington Gardens. With the outbreak of war ten years later, all four would be sent to the Front. The eldest, George, was shot dead in Ypres in 1915. Peter was ‘invalided’ out of the Somme, and later wrote movingly of his experiences in “the most desolate, ravaged place imaginable”.
A nurse reading comfortingly to a blinded soldier from the book found under his pillow weaves the classic children’s tale into proceedings. The nurse and soldier become Wendy and John Darling, and we are transported to their London bedroom, and introduced to a familiar figure tapping at the window. Wendy, John and their brother Michael are whisked away to Never Land by a mischievous Peter Pan (reluctantly helped by a jealous and somewhat homicidal Tinker-Bell). There, just as in the field hospital, Peter’s band of lost boys crave Wendy’s care and affection as a surrogate mother, as they endlessly battle Hook’s marauding pirate crew.
Cora Kirk as Wendy, Sam Angell as Peter, and WW1 soldiers. Photo Johan Persson
Juxtaposition is used to great effect throughout, with spells of slapstick swashbuckling sharply punctuated with sombre wartime melodies, military drumming, and nursery rhymes sung by a haunting unacknowledged mother figure (Rebecca Thorn) and a company of soldiers. Sam Angell’s Peter Pan exudes the irreverent escapism of youth; meanwhile, the sense of underlying melancholy keeps us grounded and unnerved. We never quite escape the wartime backdrop. As a frightened Tootles (Lewis Griffin) is made to walk the pirate’s plank, my thoughts turn to the hundreds of thousands of young men, futilely sent over the trenches, in the face of heavy artillery fire. However, this buoyant production is far from a dreary affair.
Prepare to be charmed, moved and delighted by this thought-provoking performance.
Whilst Jon Bausor’s ingenious set design is a notable show-stealer (Seriously, if Ikea bought into his seamlessly all-purpose hospital beds, they probably wouldn’t need to stock much else), the creative team’s thought and imagination permeate throughout. The supporting ensemble carry-out intricate set changes in a way befitting their military uniforms; efficiently constructing luminous and exotic Never Land scenes out of little more than drab sheets of rusted corrugated iron, plain white bed sheets and pyjamas on fishing rods.
The energetic cast strike a perfect balance of enthusiasm and restraint. The dialogue bounces zestfully between the lost boys and pirates, the plot at times taking second fiddle to their energetic back-and-forths. Cora Kirk is a delight as Wendy and does well to stand out in this world of pantomime pirates and boisterous boys. Similarly, Elisa de Grey (literally) shines as Tinker-Bell, bringing much warmth and personality to a gas-lamp puppet fairy.
Sam Angell as Peter with the Lost Boys and Wendy. Photo Johan Persson
The multi-ethnic company’s casting is seemingly ‘colour-blind’, bar Raphael Bushay’s portrayal of Nibs, an enlisted Caribbean soldier/lost boy. This nod to the 16,000 Caribbean troops that fought in the British West Indian Regiment is refreshing, in a context where the contributions of some four million black and Asian men to the war effort are rarely acknowledged in popular culture. As the lost boys/soldiers share their harrowing tales of combat, Bushay recalls how black troops were banned from attending the 1919 London Peace March to celebrate the war’s end. The racist discrimination endured by black and Asian troops – even as they gave their lives in defence of the colonial powers – is an enduring injustice that this production was perhaps equipped to emphasise more than it chose to.
Prepare to be charmed, moved and delighted by this thought-provoking performance. Highly recommended.
Info: Peter Pan is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 15 June 2018 | book tickets