In this not-to-be-missed National Theatre production of perennial children’s favourite Peter Pan, audiences are welcomed back to Neverland in 21st century style. Don’t be alarmed; the paint-splattered setting may resemble an art jam studio, but all the old favourites are still present: The Lost Boys, forever-young Peter (Paul Hilton) and his mischievous companion Tink (Saikat Ahamed); fearless Wendy (Madeleine Worrall); leader-of-the-pack Tiger Lily, and, of course, dastardly Captain Hook (Anna Francolini) and snivelling Smee (Felix Hayes).
Director Sally Cookson and dramaturg Mike Akers have managed to present J.M. Barrie’s bittersweet tale about the magic of childhood and the agony of growing up in a charming production that doesn’t underestimate its audience. The magic flows freely from the first scene, in which we are introduced to the boisterous, noisy Darling family and their glorious flannel pyjamas.
Felix Hayes presents a delightfully ditzy Mr. Darling, whose monologue on the subject of his impossible neck-tie is sure to have everyone in stitches, and Anna Francolini brings a world of warmth and love to her Mrs. Darling. Madeleine Worral as Wendy keeps one spellbound throughout the play, as she deftly manages to capture the ambitious spirit and energetic nature of the young girl who doesn’t need much convincing to join a strange flying boy on an adventure to Neverland.
Paul Hilton’s Peter Pan is equally stubborn and generous, earnest and playful. His wicked grin promises excitement and action from his first entrance, and Peter does not disappoint. His ‘No way, lady!’ in answer to Mrs. Darling’s suggestion that he grow up nearly drew an audible cheer from this reviewer. Pan’s fairy companion Tink, in the shape of the rather stocky, gloriously tutu-clad Saikat Ahamed, is a creation of genius and provides a number of good laughs courtesy of some impressive physical antics and unintelligible verbal acrobatics. Ekow Quartey deserves special mention for his dual role as lost boy Tootles and the Darling family dog/nurse, Nana.
The spotlight, however, belongs to Anna Francolini, who truly excels in her portrayal of Captain Hook, that dreaded villain perpetually in pursuit of naughty children yet constantly petrified of the large, lurking crocodile whose presence is announced by the sound of Hook’s own ticking watch — a watch once fed to the animal by Peter Pan (while the timepiece was still attached to its owner’s severed hand). Hook’s a smash hit from the moment her hoop skirt and platform boots appear in the backlight upstage. Francolini’s pirate runs the gamut between terrifyingly brash and unsettlingly introspective.
This Hook is never simply an evil presence of the cardboard cut-out variety, but struts the boards as a complicated character unable to hide her rather endearing desperation and anxieties. Hook’s inner demons are delicately revealed in a scene where she sits in her captain’s quarters, bald and wearing nothing but some white undergarments that lend her an institutionalised look, as she quaveringly sings an eerie challenge to her young nemesis. Hers is the kind of all-consuming madness that almost invites admiration (and most definitely makes for excellent viewing).
It’s no accident that this Captain Hook is a woman. (The role is usually played by the same actor who plays Mr. Darling, but here, it is Mrs. Darling who dons the pirate’s flamboyant hat.) The play makes a point of welcoming girls to the world of fun and adventure so often reserved for boys, and this production asks some interesting questions about mothers and their children in the midst of all the excitement.
As in the original text, Wendy’s brother John can’t understand all the fuss being made about his sister, as she’s ‘only a girl’. His whining earns him swift and painful punishment from Peter, who has already told Wendy that one girl is ‘more use than twenty boys’. ‘I think it’s lovely the way you talk about girls!’ a visibly delighted Wendy gushes at Peter. With a petticoat-wearing, unashamedly womanly Captain Hook taking centre stage, the old familiar dialogue rather serves to warm the heart of a modern girl perhaps a tad disillusioned with the real world and its habit of telling women what they’re meant to be.
As to the more technical aspects of the show, delights abound. Spellbinding puppets representing Tiger Lily’s wolf pack and the menacing crocodile; waving ribbons creating a rising ocean tide, and some truly mesmerising flying acrobatics (achieved with the aid of human counterweights and strong cables referred to as ‘fairy string’ for the benefit of younger audience members) all contribute to the success of the production. Plentiful use is made of modern references like radar (powered by a bowler hat) and space suits, walkie-talkies, and banoffee pie (all imaginary and employed to great comic effect), and the Lost Boys poke some contemporary fun at those recent grown-up obsessions kale, quinoa, and protein bars in a song proclaiming the children’s everlasting love for sugar and carbs.
Dessert-centred fantasies aside, don’t think for a moment that this show is for under-10s only. There’s much to entertain the adult theatre-goer, and I would defy anyone who’s made the regrettable decision to grow up not to shed a tear during the last, beautiful scenes of this production. ‘You need to be read stories until your nightmares fly away,’ wise young Wendy announces to the pitiful Hook, and in that moment, every adult audience member must surely feel a certain tug at the heart strings — a pull back to the old allure of make-believe and fairy tales before bedtime, perhaps. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.
Peter Pan is part of the current National Theatre Live season, and can be seen at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront on the 8th, 9th, 12th, and 13th of July. Book at www.sterkinekor.co.za.