J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is a well-loved children’s fantasy which celebrated the centenary of its first appearance on the London stage in 2004.
Our hero, Peter Pan, is a pre-teen who magically never ages on his fantastical island home in Neverland, which he shares with other ageless Lost Boys. Led by Peter, they battle his nemesis Captain Hook, so-named after Peter takes his left hand. His forays into our world are with his loyal friend, the fairy Tinker Bell, and they have become more frequent, as he eavesdrops at the windows of the Darling family home. There, Wendy thrills her younger brothers, John and Michael, with wonderful stories like Charles Perrault’s Cinderella (1697), which Peter takes and recounts to the eagerly waiting Lost Boys back home – second star to the right and straight on till morning. But, after Peter and his shadow literally come unstuck, he is discovered by Wendy. Much to Tinker Bell’s disgust, he invites the Darlings to Neverland – John, and Michael, to join the Lost Boy ranks, and Wendy to become their mother. Once there, however, Wendy and her brothers are kidnapped by Captain Hook, and they must use all their cunning to help Peter face Hook and rescue everyone.
In this, the first of the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s 2018 programme, artistic director Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel revive their allegorical 2015 production, which cleverly and poignantly interweaves the fantasy of the original story with the blood and trauma of World War I’s Battle of the Somme!
Rebecca Thorn sings haunting lullabies, as the too-involved young Nurse Wendy (Cora Kirk) tries to keep up with the nursing care on a trauma ward near the trenches of The Front. It’s full of maimed, very young men from across the British Empire, under the watchful eye of the terrifying Sister (Caroline Deyga). During a brief respite, Wendy hands out the mail and offers to read one for a quiet soldier (Theo Cowan), recovering with blinded, bandaged eyes. But, as they are interrupted by the arrival of another casualty – another boy soon to be lost, Wendy discovers the blind soldier’s copy of Peter Pan. She begins to read, and as Peter himself (Sam Angell) comes looking for his disobedient shadow, Jon Bausor’s versatile set design transforms into the Darling nursery, along with two of the wounded who sleep soundly, but who soon awaken as John (Cowan) and Michael (Omari Douglas) Darling.
The soldiers from the opening sequences re-emerge as Lost Boys – Tootles (Lewis Griffin), Nibs (Raphael Bushay), Twins (Curtis Kemlo replacing Fred Davis, and James Anthony-Rose), Slightly (Tim Preston) and Curly (Willy Hudson), and as pirates (Arthur Kyeyune, Luke Johnson, Louis Quaye, John Sandeman and Emilio Diaz Abregü) – fantastically be-costumed by Jim Morrell as marauders throughout history (a Conquistador, Viking, French Chevalier, Mongol warrior and medieval knight), along with First Mate Starkey (Kyle Lima), Boatswain Smee (Deyga) and, of course, the cold-hearted Hook (Dennis Herdman). Abregü, Kyeyune and Sandeman also double up as show climber, movement associate and fight captain, respectively. Nurse, the dog, is still referred to, but remains unseen.
Although the stage production is 14 years past its centenary, the concept of boys lost from their prams and unclaimed for a week, who never grow up sits easily with the young lives taken as the world went to war for the first time between 1914 and 1918. So, this revival also stands as a tribute in the centenary year of that war’s end, and four years of the futile illusions of young men trying to hold back reality.
The war and its soldiers frame and continually bleed into the childhood adventures, and vice versa. Yet, magic is still in the air, as the children really do fly via bungee attachments expertly worked into the on-stage action. Fairies, crocodiles, jellyfish, and mermaids appear to effortlessly fly, creep and swim about, courtesy of some fun, naïve puppetry created by Rachael Canning from WWI paraphernalia, which, along with the multipurpose set, props, and cast, also constantly remind you of the power of a child’s imagination.
As the Lost Boys decide their own fate, they revert to young men, each of their short monologues telling how some of them left Ypres and how some never did. Indeed, George Llewelyn Davies, one of the children who inspired Barrie to create the iconic Peter Pan, was killed in action in 1915. But, what you might particularly appreciate, is that Raphael Bushay’s monologue nicely explains the contribution of Caribbean infantry, and their subsequent erasure, starting with Nibs’ Caribbean lilt.
Despite the fantasy/war parallels, this production is still aimed at children which is, quite rightly, most evident in Peter and the Lost Boys. Still, apart from the monologues, including Hook’s dismaying reflections on his wasted life, which also hint at the futility of his cyclical battles with Peter, there are, oddly, few moments of real depth. However, the cast do well with the challenges of the set up – some having to bungee over the 1,200-strong audience, engage in fight scenes which could benefit from some editing down. or be supported by cast-mates in order to swim. It is to their credit that we can still suspend our disbelief just enough to enjoy the enchanting spectacle.
Sydney Carroll and Robert Atkins’ theatre, to be found in Queen Mary’s Garden, just inside the Inner Circle of Regent’s Park, is as charming as ever, since opening 86 years ago in 1932 and being rebuilt in 1999. It is the inspiration for other open-air theatres around the world!
Completely uncovered, the only sheltered area is underneath the tiered auditorium, housing one of the longest bars of any theatre in London. It has an extensive backstage area, which includes a green room for the company and technical team, a full wardrobe, makeup and wigs department, a workshop for the maintenance of stage sets and numerous offices for stage management, sound, LX and other crew. And, the £2.8m Regent’s Park Rehearsal Studio build will allow the Company to rehearse on-site toward the end of the season with Little Shop of Horrors, and hire out for external functions.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre Productions have an increasingly strong inclusively representative cast history, scoring almost 50% cast diversity in terms of racial heritage, and both women and people of colour cast in ‘surprising’ roles. This follows the 2016 revival of Andrew Lloyd-Webber/Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar for which Tyrone Huntley’s Judas earned a Laurence Olivier and Whatsonstage Award nomination; and the 2014 Gershwin classic Porgy and Bess, allowing a black-majority cast to take centre stage: Rufus Bonds Jr as Porgy, Nicola Hughes as Bess, Cedric Neal as Sportin’ Life, Phillip Boykin as Crown, Sharon D. Clarke as Mariah), Jade Ewen as Clara and Golda Rosheuvel as Serena; which earned an Olivier nomination for best revival.
So, with an approximate running time of 1hr 55mins plus one interval of 20 mins, go see the delightful Peter Pan.
Peter Pan runs from 17th May to 15th June 2018. The 2018 season ends 19th September after three further productions, including The Turn of the Screw (22nd – 30th Jun), As You Like It (6th – 28th Jul) and Little Shop of Horrors (3rd Aug – 15th Sept).
Find out more here.