‘To die will be an awfully big adventure!’ roars Peter Pan (Paul Hilton), washed atop Marooner’s Rock in Mermaid’s Lagoon, his grim fate now all but sealed by the evil Captain Hook (Anna Francolini). It’s a scene that could only be dreamt up. We could craft the most fantastical, outrageous Neverland there ever was, and it would still be eclipsed by the version a child could create in their imagination. This is why the stage is the original and best way to bring Peter Pan to life – using theatricality to generate wonder, presenting fantasy in the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what.’ It’s this aspect that Sally Cookson has tapped into for the National, giving us the perfect show for families this Christmas.
Cookson, who helmed the National’s monumental Jane Eyre, returns to her 2012 Bristol Old Vic production. This is masterful storytelling from one of the best directors in British theatre, proof that devising will always get you the most imaginative results. Dramaturg Mike Akers has remained respectfully true to J M Barrie’s text. Motherhood is our highlighted theme in this story, with Wendy (Madeline Worrall) taking a much more nurturing position to the Lost Boys. There’s still the fear of growing up, kissing goodbye to the safety of childhood, but it’s crucially countered by the ability of our characters – we know, even if she doesn’t yet, that Wendy will be one outstanding parent. The best moments exist in smaller parts, a standout being the treacherous journey to rescue Tiger Lily (Lois Chimimba). It’s completely mimed by our heroes, foregoing anything visual for simple, childlike make-believe.
Set and Costume Designers, Michael Vale and Katie Sykes, blur the realms of dreams and reality, creating a Neverland that’s as clever as it is magical. The Lost Boy’s hideout is ripped from the guts of the Jolly Roger, with rigging and ropes to swing on; even the curtain is a foreboding black sail that swallows the stage. Outfits look as though they’ve all been constructed from the same pair of pyjamas, a nice touch, and there’s some really excellent puppets, including a terrifyingly apocalyptic crocodile. The fact we’ve got performers from War Horse and Running Wild here should give you some indication as to how good the puppetry is.
Most importantly though, does the flying work? It’s a tradeoff between practicality and wonder, and thankfully the wonder wins. The ropes are purposefully visible (cheekily called ‘Fairy String’), and you will have to get used to actors being conspicuously strapped into their harnesses before they take flight. Once you do though, everything fades away – you become the five-year-old on the front row, mouth wide open, eyes glassy, mesmerisingly transported to a world very far away.
Worrall is perfect. Her Wendy knows exactly the world she’s in and how best to succeed in it, yet Worrall still allows her room for growth. She’s as pragmatic as she is occasionally petulant, a blend of childlike awe and maternal instinct. Francolini is the Captain Hook you grew up with, snarling, snivelling and, most importantly, scary. She’s also Mrs Darling and so individual in both roles, my money is on 90% of the children not realising it’s the same actor. The supporting cast is so unbelievably good it feels churlish to single out performers, but I can’t ignore Ekow Quartey either as Lost Boy Tootles (adorable) or Nana (the funniest character in the show). Hilton captures the swaggering, cocksure attitude of Peter, but it’s a shame he doesn’t bring more charm or nuance to the role. He’s not as likeable as he could be.
Children’s theatre can be so lazy, so cynically corporate, so disrespectful – this is anything but. It’s a wholly magical interpretation of Peter Pan, with so much playing involved you want to get up and join in. Don’t take it from me though – take it from the young girl sat next to me who, when asked if she believed in fairies, clapped and cheered for all she was worth. Her excitement at being rewarded for her faith would have melted even the coldest of hearts.
Peter Pan is playing the National Theatre until February 4 2017.
Photo: Steve Tanner