Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park, London – until 15 June 2018
Peter Pan has now flown into every medium possible. He is a play, novel, pantomime, musical, television programme, cartoon and a Kate Bush single. This version, at the leafy, fairy light-twinkly and on this night, bone dry and sunny Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, is another twist.
Directors Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel have melded World War One and circus. Despite the play being written a full 10 years before Franz Ferdinand took a ride through Sarajevo, the allegory is snug. Neverland is the escape, the idea of adventure and derring-do which Barrie himself peddled during the war, alongside many famous authors, in the War Propaganda Bureau.
This production opens in a field hospital outside the trenches. Wendy is a nurse, soldiers are limping in. Their suffering soon slips into the dream of Neverland. The device may be snug, but this is where the play is weakest.
Give it ropes, give it flight and fight; that’s where things get cooking. When Sam Angell’s Panto Pan clambers through the window and into this scene, it’s as if someone has dropped a tea tray. Why is it so broad, so camp and so green? I slumped into my squeaky outdoor chair and prepared to lose an evening. But as the sun dipped behind the park, and the spotlights clicked on, things mightily picked up.
Dennis Herdman’s Captain Cook and his catalogue of tunes and gurns had us all chuckling, Tinkerbell (in the hands of the brilliant Elisa de Grey) had grown men cooing and even the Lost Boys (who had a strong whiff of mid-morning kids TV) made sense. Cora Kirk as Wendy (with a corking Hull accent we need to hear more of) was a solid attempt at the kind of generically defiant female lead of a musical, although this wasn’t one. Once everyone accepted it as just a very well-executed panto, things clicked.
The clutter of props, carried from wartime England, were transformed. Hospital beds were fireplaces, islands and boats. Curtains became fish. A briefcase and collection of hankies became a gull. Most importantly, the tick tock tick tock of the crocodile cumulated in a beast made of beady lanterns, a swishing tail of corrugated iron and a snapping jaw of deckchair. The entire evening is owed to puppet designer Rachael Canning. Her creations somewhat save the night from the concept.
Even when Peter exclaimed that “to die would be a great adventure”, I was thinking pirates and canon, not soldiers and trenches. Which is why the war is nodded to, or when finally the lost boys return to the army uniform they started the night in, it all falls to pieces. They make a serious point; about lives being lost and wasted. But the performances are still loud, the dialogue still basic and cliches abound.
At the end of the war, in what’s described as Barrie’s first and last public appearance, he spoke of the war and of how they had told the “youth, who had to get us out of it, tall tales of what it really is and the clover beds to which it leads.”.