WENDY & PETER PAN
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 15th January 2014
Ella Hickson has adapted J M Barrie’s classic tale for this family-oriented fare – giving us a straight play rather than yet another pantomime version. Giving Wendy first billing in the title sets the tone: this is an updated version in terms of content if not setting. There are no mermaids, no what would have been called ‘Red Indians’ – instead we get Tiger Lily as an urban Amazon warrior… Wendy (an earnest Fiona Button) serious and bossy even when she’s supposed to be having fun, asserts herself, learning to go beyond the expectations of her gender imposed on her by a patriarchal society. Well, good for her. It just seems a little laboured at times.
Where this production works best is when J M Barrie’s hand is still detectable. The plot structure is unaltered, although there is the addition of a fourth Darling child whose demise in the early moments of the play is excellently handled and very moving. Kudos to actor Colin Ryan who establishes a likeable character in a few deft strokes. The story becomes Wendy’s quest to get her lost boy brother back, blaming herself for his illness – she neglected to sew a button on his pyjamas.
Where it falls short and breaks its own magic spell is with the dialogue which lurches from passable Edwardian English to contemporary slang. Mrs Darling telling her husband to ‘bog off’ just ain’t right, however empowered and suffragette-y she might have become.
Peter Pan himself (Sam Swann) looks the part and moves with grace and energy, lifted and held aloft by a chorus of his ‘shadows’, a troupe of ghostly pallbearers. Of course at times ropes and wires are involved but the workings of his flight are never hidden from us. It’s about make-believe and imagination after all. Some of his lines make you cringe. I understand the updated dialogue might engage a young audience but it robs the play of some of its ‘otherness’ and magical qualities.
Charlotte Mills’s Tinkerbell is a big surprise, sounding like Kathy Burke with none of the finesse. It is easy to imagine her propping up the bar at the Queen Vic, her tiny wings part of a raucous hen night uniform.
The crocodile is also a surprise – and a disappointing one. Arthur Kyeyune is a skilled physical performer but his ‘crocodile’ is no more than a man in a top hat and long coat, creeping and stalking around, holding a clock. Imagine Baron Samedi meeting Flava Flav. As a symbol of Hook’s impending mortality he is rather disturbing (he is also the doctor who attends the dying Darling) but how can they not show us a crocodile? Given the beauty and invention of the rest of Colin Richmond’s design work for this production, this is very unsatisfying. On the other hand, Hook’s pirate ship is wonderfully impressive, a storybook galleon with a giant skull and skeleton hands as figurehead, gliding and revolving across the stage.
Hook (an enjoyable Guy Henry) is less aristocratic than he is usually portrayed. There are hints at the tragedy of the human condition here as he despises and envies the lost boys their youth. But without a proper crocodile, his demise is a letdown. His interactions with Gregory Gudgeon’s Smee lighten the mood and break the fourth wall more effectively than Pan’s appeal for applause to resurrect his fairy friend.
Visually engaging, occasionally touching, Wendy & Peter Pan takes itself a little too seriously at times, too heavy-footed to really get off the ground.