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Peter Pan (Susan Elkin reviews)

society/company: Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (professional productions) (directory)
performance date: 25 May 2018
venue: Regent’s Park Open-Air Theatre

It’s been a while since I cried in the theatre but I defy you not to at this intensely poignant, deeply moving take on Peter Pan which marks the end of World War One.

The premise is that the John and Michael Darling and the Lost Boys really would have been lost a few years after the premiere of Peter Pan in 1904. Most would have perished in the trenches.

So directors, Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel set their production in a field hospital where hideously injured men yearn for letters from their mothers. Gradually the imaginative power of story telling takes over, the beds move and morph into other things (set by Jon Bausor) and the dreamlike story of Peter Pan is acted out using far more of JM Barrie’s words than most versions do. But it’s anchored. We never leave the hospital and the front – soldiers march in and out, often singing hauntingly evocative WW1 songs. The movement work is fabulous.

There’s a three-piece band, out of sight, at the back and singer Rebecca Thorn, costumed as an elegant Edwardian lady, wanders round the set singing arrangements of numbers such as Keep the Home Fires Burning across the action. It’s a very thoughtful and thought provoking device.

One of the many strengths in this outstanding show is the puppetry (directed by Rachael Canning). Every puppet is formed from items which might have been lying about in a trench or hospital. Tinker Bell (beautifully puppeted by talented Elisa de Gray) is an angry oil lamp, snapping, spitting, farting and laughing gleefully. The mermaids are lamps with corrugated iron tails. Nurse’s dresses become fishes. And the crocodile is a snapping step ladder.

Cora Kirk who starts as an overworked junior nurse and then becomes Wendy is delightful. She brings touching warmth and wisdom to her role and her last line (no spoilers here) is a real tour de force. She uses a homely northern accent and, as Wendy, perfectly captures that transition between childhood and womanhood – shifting frequently from one to the other.

Sam Angell gives us a very child-like Glaswegian Peter Pan jumping about, having fun but vulnerably searching for what he can’t have or is afraid to take. He becomes a tragic figure at the end. There are no weak links in this fine cast (complete with “extras” from East 15 and ArtsEd) but Caroline Deyga is exceptionally good value as the larger than life matron who becomes Smee and there’s really lovely work from Lewis Griffin as Tootles and from Dennis Herdman as Hook, really a disdainful WW1 officer.

The bungee work which allows flying works well with ladders at the side of the stage up which other actors move up and down to counter balance it. It allows characters to fly all over the playing area and quite a distance into the auditorium.

One of the final scenes is set much later – maybe in the 1980s – when the few survivors, presumably at a reunion, tall each other what their lives have been since. It’s intensely powerful and leaves you wondering, as of course, you’re meant to, just what on earth this war was for.

First staged in 2014 to mark the beginning of the centenary, this revival has developed a lot. It’s now a marvellous show, one of the best I’ve seen in a very long time – don’t miss it.

 First published by Sardines
Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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