…and straight on ’til morning.
The National Theatre Christmas show this year is ‘Peter Pan‘. I went on Saturday to a completely full Olivier Theatre ( I sat separately from the rest of the party, so difficult was it to get tickets ). The production was originally presented at The Bristol Old Vic in 2012 to great acclaim and it comes, without the original cast but with all the stage resources of the National.
The setting is appropriately indeterminate in time, but the costumes in the first scene approximate to 1930s and pyjamas are, after all, timeless. Peter wears a skinny legged green suit and tyrannises his lost boys with absolute and joyous authority. Tiger Lily is a sexy, tough Glaswegian who enjoys scrapping with Peter and Tinkerbell is a very tough fairy indeed with her/his own language. Anna Francolini’s pirate captain is suitably cynical and vicious, at least on the outside. Her end (and the amazing crocodile which accomplishes it) is spectacular, as is her pirate ship. It was a surprise to me that Barrie originally intended Captain Hook to be a woman and it makes perfect sense, this is a play about childhood and parents, especially mothers.
The actors leap, gyrate and fly, literally, but with the help of ‘thinking good thoughts’ and the, very necessary, ‘fairy string’. I enjoyed seeing the mechanism – the professional counter weight people – on stage and visible. It didn’t lessen the enchantment and, indeed, the children sitting next to me seemed to take it for granted that magic came with gymnastics.
There were a large number of children there and it was clear that they ‘got’ it with no problem at all. There were other things for the adults, jokes which every parent would recognise (and some non-parents too). The ‘healthy eating’ song is fun, as is Peter’s conversation with Wendy when she asks him how he, the boy who doesn’t want to grow up, feels about her – ‘Tiger Lily asks that too,’ he says. ‘I just don’t understand.’ The Esther Williams/Busby Berkeley mermaids number prompted a few guffaws. The musicians are live on stage, either in silhouette, above, or part of the Lost Boys gang. The music is good, while being, mostly, easily forgotten.
Anyone who has only seen the Disney film of ‘Peter Pan’ misses the darkness which is in the original. It is here in equal measure to the enchantment. Beneath their bravado the lost boys are desperately unhappy and Peter is a damaged, rejected child. And the children got that too. A vociferous debate took place to my right at the beginning of the interval –
‘But he’s dead, we saw him go under the water.’
‘I think you’ll find he isn’t, he has to save them all later.’
‘No Mummy, Peter is dead. But that won’t stop him saving the others, he’s not like them.’
The programme notes explore Barrie’s own life. His elder brother, David, died in an accident aged 13 and their mother never truly recovered. Barrie spent much of his life and the rest of his childhood trying to fill the gap left by David’s demise. Later in life he was prompted, by meeting and getting to know three children on their regular walks in Kensington Gardens, to create the ‘boy who never grew up’ for whom death would be ‘an awfully big adventure’. The character was to roam Kensington Gardens rescuing the boys who had fallen out of their prams and taking them to Neverland. Peter explains, in this production, that there are no girls in Neverland because girls are too sensible to fall out of their prams. The two girls to my right, legs barely long enough for their feet to touch the ground when sitting, nodded sagely. Fun, but thus are our modern gender roles established.
‘Peter Pan‘ runs until 4th February 2017. Tickets range from £25 to £50+, but there is limited availability for many shows and others are sold out. It’s a seasonal production worth seeing, if you can get a ticket.