‘To live is an awfully big adventure’

Peter Pan’s unbeatable optimism and thirst for adventure is lifting him up into the air. J.M. Barrie’s boy who never grows up is a legacy that is well known by both children and everyone who finally grow up. Nevertheless, living is exactly what Peter Pan fears and avoids. He escapes to Neverland to stay forever the boy he is while life on earth continues.

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre presents a restaging of the Olivier Award-nominated Peter Pan directed by Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel with Sam Angell as cocky Peter. As a requiem for the First World War Centenary in 2018, Neverland is revived within its horrors. The young soldiers turn into the Lost Boys, naively celebrating their bravery and sacrifice for their fatherland. However, being disillusioned and wounded in a military hospital, a young nurse (Cora Kirk) reads to them a found copy of Peter Pan as a story of escapism, a celebration of life, reckless adventure and the melancholies of childhood. Being surrounded by fairies, mermaids and pirates, the heroism of youth is awoken again.

The story comes alive in the military hospital: the nurse turns into the mature and caring Wendy who tricks Peter in giving her a kiss. Her brothers John (Theo Cowan) and the little Michael (Omari Douglas) take off their eye bandages to wake up within the wish-to-be reality to be able to fly to Neverland. This playful and magically innocent scene of flying lessons by Peter is facilitated through soldiers who either lift the characters or support them with flying gear to stress the immersion into the enchanting escapism. The hospital window opens and the adventures starts: Tinker Bell (Elisa de Grey)- Peter’s jealous fairy friend – attempts to harm Wendy, Wendy and Peter adopt the Lost Boys as father and mother and all together rescue Wendy’s brothers from Captain Hook (Dennis Herdman) and finally dare to fight his whole crew in the last heroic battle.

Reality and fantasy collide and merge in this production of Peter Pan. The war is ever present within Neverland’s bubble of magic and innocence. The hospital beds turn into beds of flowers, transform into Wendy’s house and become boats on top of the lagoon where mermaids with gas masks as faces attempting to pull Wendy in the cold, deadly water. The set design by Jon Bausor skilfully triggers the immersion of being in a magical realm when the hospital setting changes into the Lost Boys’ home or Captain Hook’s pirate ship. Nevertheless, wake-up calls through bomb alarm or battlefield noises ground the escape in the presence of the horror of a real war lurking beneath the fighting with Captain Hook and his diverse pirate crew.

The presence of singer Rebecca Thorn as an observing, comforting, yet distant mother figure for the Lost Boys at the frontline of the war and in Neverland is an additional highlight and clever twist in this Peter Pan production. It sets the mood of melancholy in bittersweet tones and even allows a moment of vulnerability cracking through Peter’s ever-lasting cockiness. Additionally beautiful is the embodiment of the malicious puppet Tinker Bell by de Grey. Even though the lamp as Tink appears to be too huge for an elegant fairy, she lights and guides through the falling night as loyal companion to Peter. Furthermore, the costumes by Jon Morrell are eye-catching and transform the pirate crew into stereotypes of the fighting foreigner to reflect upon nationalities’ clichés.

Angell’s Peter is conceit and innocence personified and his flying skills really lift him up into genuine joy and playfulness. Nevertheless, some moments seem to be acted rather then reacted and lose the lightness of his being. That is due to the neatly rehearsed delivery of the rapid scene transitions. The cast sometimes does not give enough credit to puns or special moments in the play because they rush into the next scene, which is a shame as the cast is clearly able to enchant the younger and older audience. Even though the authenticity is thus sometimes endangered, the whole cast and artistic team is doing an incredible convincing job as merger of reality and fiction in the magical open-air venue. Especially audience participation and the use of space of the auditorium immerses the audience into the magic realm of Neverland.

Regent’s Park Open Air production of Peter Pan is a must-see for all fairy-tale lovers who especially enjoy a trip between magical illusion and dark reality of the ever-present battlefield. It is an enchanting cleverly constructed production of the challenges of growing up and the decision to stay forever a child in a heroic illusion of fighting pirates instead of the stereotyped enemies of the war.

Peter Pan is playing at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 15 June

Photo: Open Air Theatre website