If it’s not compulsory to have Bristol stalwart Tristan Sturrock in every Bristol Old Vic show yet, then it should be. Last seen doing his one-man show Mayday! Mayday! and as Long John Silver in Sally Cookson’s Treasure Island, Sturrock is on fine form swooping around the stage as Peter Pan. Cookson’s latest show is masterful: it retains enough of the whimsy of the original tale to be magical, but packs enough of a punch to please a modern audience, and even to keep my feminist hackles down.
Madeleine Worrall’s Wendy is allowed to be rather more kick-ass than usual – yes, she sews on Peter’s shadow, but she does it while grumbling about how useless he is and how much she hates sewing. The dodgier elements of the story (strange manchild kidnaps three children, the girl becomes surrogate mother to him and his band of lost children…) are glossed over, because Cookson’s production makes you believe in magic and fairies. It’s not too sugary, though, especially the band of rather butch mermaids in sequinned shorts and flippers…
This is the kind of ramshackle, held-together-with-tape theatre that only works if the entire cast are committed to the story, and in Peter Pan, Bristol Old Vic has a triumph. One can’t escape the feeling that most of the budget went on the flying (done with “fairy string”), but it doesn’t matter. The flying itself is unsubtle but full of infectious joy, and the make-shift feel suits the lost boys’ den and much of Neverland – we are constantly reminded that this mostly children playing at being grown ups. The set design (Michael Vale) is ingenious, particularly the traffic-cone crocodile and pirate ship in a skip, and captures perfectly childhood games where everyday objects are tranformed. It’s a clever tactic, and one that works beuatifully here.
Benji Bower’s music is fun, although a couple of numbers go on a bit too long. Stuart McLoughlin’s Captain Hook has a wonderful voice, and the pirates’ song about what they’re going to do when they capture Peter is a nicely judged mix of gore, horror and comedy. The children in the audience were having a wonderful time, judging by the amount of giggling and shouting out that went on, and the “do you believe in fairies?” scene went down well. But then, who wouldn’t want to save Saikat Ahamed’s hilarious, otherwordly Tinkerbell, in braces, tutu and DMs?
The cast multi-role with such alacrity that they occasionally re-enter as someone else before you realise they have exited. It must be a knackering two-and-a-bit hours, but they show no sign of strain, and bounce about their playground of a set with glee. The second half flags a bit, but this is the fault of the story rather than this production – all of JM Barrie’s sentimental stuff about mothers has to be fitted in somehow. A rousing fight scene and a touching homecoming lift the energy towards the end.
Those who are “young, innocent and heartless” can fly away to Neverland, and those of us who none of those things should be glad we were fleetingly allowed to join them.
Peter Pan is playing at Bristol Old Vic Theatre until 19 January 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Bristol Old Vic website.