PETER PAN Reimagined
The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 5th December, 2019
Director Liam Steel follows up last year’s whirlwind of a successful Wizard of Oz with this new version of the immortal JM Barrie classic. Instead of Edwardian London, the action is updated and translocated to present-day Birmingham, a rundown block of flats. Odd then that Steel should cast his Wendy as a Scottish lass, undermining the show’s much-touted local identity. Don’t get me wrong: Cora Tsang is fine in the role. This Wendy is a mardy young teenager, snarky with Jess, the latest in a long line of foster mums, in the show’s downbeat beginning. All kitchen sink drama. In fact, scenes that usually transpire in the children’s bedroom all happen in the kitchen, linking Wendy with domesticity, mothering, and care-giving, as though this might be her inescapable fate.
With Hook played by a woman (doubling as the foster mother) themes of motherhood and gender roles are brought to the fore. The Lost Ones crave the discipline of structure that a mother would bring, while Wendy, rejecting it in her home life, plays along when in Neverland. Speaking of Neverland, it’s a joyous place, bedecked with graffiti and urban deprivation – Wendy’s fantasy life is as bleak as her reality. The setting robs Neverland of its storybook exotica and its sense of wonder. There are some instances of technical creativity, with some rather splendid and scary mermaids and a beautiful bird made out of a detergent box but it’s all a bit too dark, I find.
The cast is great. Lawrence Walker’s Peter Pan looks a bit grown-up but it’s the playing that gives him his boyish exuberance. He has more Shadows than Cliff Richard, in a brilliant piece of staging. Mollie Lambert is thoroughly credible as Wendy’s younger brother Michael. And there is some great energy from the gang of Lost Ones, and from the Pirates (who look like refugees from a Mad Max film). Mirabelle Gremaud genuinely bends over backwards to perform as Tink, who has her own fairy language, which is funny, and a strong singing voice, which is lovely, but she looks like a character from a 1970s sci-fi programme. Charlotte Merriam’s thick Brummie sidekick Smee is a marked contrast to the mighty Nia Gwynne, resplendent as Captain Hook. Gwynne plays it old-school villain, high camp and delivering her lines with relish – many of which are lifted from Barrie. Costume designer Laura Jane Stanfield has given her the best outfit, with a gilded hook and even a galleon for a hat.
There is a strange mix of childish innocence and naivety with the harder edge of the music; Peter doesn’t know what a kiss is but he can drop sick rhymes like a pro. The assertive nature of the rapping and the hip-hop is slickly performed but doesn’t sit well with the kids’ yearning for Happy Families and Cinderella.
The script, by Liam Steel and Georgia Christou, has plenty of fun, and JM Barrie rises to the surface every now and then, and I want to enjoy it more than I do. I suppose it comes down to Neverland and this end of Birmingham being essentially the same place that stops the show from taking off.