115 years after J.M. Barrie created him, Peter Pan is still an icon of popular culture with a new film, television appearance or stage play seemingly coming out about every year. If you count all the animated films about Tinkerbell there’s been no less than sixteen films made about him. He’s without a doubt the world’s favourite flamboyant overgrown child who lives in Neverland; the close runner-up being Michael Jackson. The latest adaptation is a charming and quite original take on the material by London’s National Theatre.
Directed by Sally Cookson who previously adapted Jane Eyre for National Theatre, this is partly a minimalist and partly a revisionist take on the material that succeeds in almost everything it tries. Both adults and children will enjoy this for there’s something for everyone – enough whimsy for the ankle biters and enough knowing winks to give the parents something to smile at as well.
There’s been numerous attempts at trying something totally new with Peter Pan – most infamously that scene in 2015’s Pan where all the pirates get together and sing Smells Like Teen Spirit, which did for Nirvana’s legacy what a shotgun did for the back of Kurt Cobain’s head – but none of them have been quite so ambitious as the stylistic choices that Cookson has thought up. Tinkerbell is now a half naked South Asian man (Siakat Ahmed) with a hat that looks like it was made from Typo brand fairy lights, and Tiger Lily (Lois Chimimba) is an angry black Scottish lady with dreadlocks. The stand out of these revisionist changes is the gender swapped interpretation of Captain Hook (Anna Francolini) who looks and acts like a hipster from Brunswick who just dropped ketamine.
Leading the proceedings is a very energetic Paul Hilton as our titular hero. Flying around in a beautifully designed emerald suit, he’s the perfect lead. He possesses an energy and youthful naivety that makes this whole production stand out, even if he seems to be aiming for a Peter Pan by the way of Rik Mayall. He’s the perfect blend of brattish and sincere, able to be annoying in one scene but pull it back in the next. One that comes to mind is a pivotal scene of him flying with Wendy to a cover of Burt Bacharach’s Close To You which is surprisingly moving.
Many of the creative decisions are charming but many work better than others; some are even quite awkward. One of the best, and for that matter one of the funniest, decisions was how these character fly through the medium of a theatre piece. Underneath the costumes all the actors wear harnesses, and at the right moments ropes drop down from the ceiling which the actors then connect to. The first time that this happens it seems really awkward, for it takes about ten seconds of the actors fiddling with the carabiner to attach properly, but in the words of Peter: to fly you need courage, a happy memory and “fairy string”. It’s little knowing touches like this that elevate this play to something quite special.
There’s a sense of good humour, grace and charm bursting from this adaptation that makes it well worth seeking out. Although not entirely successful – there isn’t one memorable song which isn’t great for a musical – there are enough moments worthy of a smile and a chuckle to make this worth seeing. If your children can sit still for close to three hours (with an intermission) by all means take them.
NT Live: Peter Pan is in selected cinemas for a limited time from 2nd December through Sharmill Films.