Olivier, National Theatre, London – until 4 February 2017
PULLING THE FAIRY STRINGS IN AN URBAN NEVERLAND … Wendy is grown up now, earthbound, with her own child to tell about the wonder and danger of Neverland and Pan. She can’t leave the ground again, even with the “fairy string” which in Sally Cookson’s vivid, adventurous production has sent the cast flailing and somersaulting aloft, their rises and swoops powered by counterweight cast members climbing up and down the bleak metal towers of a modern landscape at the side of the stage (one casualty already in rehearsals, Sophie Thompson). But as the show opens the grownup Wendy is beached because to fly “ You have to be young and innocent and heartless”.
Co-produced with the Bristol Old Vic, Cookson’s production, like her remarkable Jane Eyre, breaks every rule of nostalgia: not spangly dust but “fairy string”, and Neverland a bleak urban bombsite where the lost boys street-dance. Hook captains a vast pirate SKIP, good pun there! Nana (Ekow Quartey) is not a dog but a super-frilled nurse who puts up with pretending to be a dog,which works very well. Though there is a real twenty-years-a-slave frisson when he/she is taken to be “chained up in the yard” by Mr Darling…
Yet in this modern, bare-and-uncompromising staging, just as she did in the Bronte tale on scaffolding Cookson drills down to a story’s emotional truth and oddness more sharply than with any amount of tights-and-nighties nostalgia . And by God, if any writer rewards mining for oddities J.M.Barrie does. Blighted in his own childhood by a mother’s grief for the brother who never grew up, preoccupied with the orphaned Davies boys, his yearning for childhood’s innocent heartlessness fascinates and disturbs.
Wendy is the heart of the tale, because being a girl she nurtures, speaks her mind, and sensibly grows up, even in childhood understanding the parental grief over the flapping curtain and the empty beds (always there is an echo of WW1 losses in good productions of the tale). But for Peter – here Paul Hilton is no child but endearingly adolescent, a defiant teddyboy, gawky in outgrown trousers – there is only that heartless airborne glee. So there was something satisfying in the Olivier in noticing how ,in moments which to us adults were movingly melancholy, a good few of the children laughed. And one moment when we adults all did, albeit ruefully, was when Wendy and Peter come down from a spectactular flying duet and she asks as they land “Peter, what are your true feelings for me?” . The poor lad’s expression is perfect as he mutters disgustedly “Tiger Lily does that!”. Damn women,always wanting commitment…
It is a thoroughly engaging and often spectacular, production, and the children present were attentive and pleased, a few starting , unprompted, the soft quick handclap to revive Saikat Ahamed’s lumbering, grumpily glossolalic drag-clown Tinkerbell with her light-up tiara . The crocodile is enormous, a thing of wonder made of old sheet metal and pipes- Toby Olié, of course – and odd bits of puppetry elsewhere have the inventive joyfulness which sends children home to play properly in imitation. Madeleine Worrall is a wonderful Wendy, forthrightly womanly, just edging into adult awareness but still capable of wild somersaulting fun aloft.
But the startling star of the show is Anna Francolini, who took over the Thompson role as Mrs Darling – frilled and feminine in the nursery, but doubling as a savage, obsessed, nightmare-mother, a dominatrix aflame with desperation: Captain Hook. Barrie apparently wanted this doubling, rather than having Mr Darling as Hook, and that fact alone could keep a Freudian busy for weeks. Francolini, a hook-fisted Medea in a tutu and bicorn hat, opens Act 2 as a terrifying she-Captain slouched wigless below decks, grotesque, smoking a fag and waiting to be laced into her corset by Smee. She mutters then howls: “I am brutality, I am battered, I am blood, I will break you Peter…”.
Properly terrifying, yet camp: what’s not to like?
box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 4 feb