PETER PAN Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park W1

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We’re in a World War I field hospital with iron beds and the corrugated-iron, battered detritus of trench warfare below. But young men will always leap and lark like the boys they were not long before. The opening moments , as a graceful Mrs Darling sings a lullaby blended with “Keep the Home Fires burning’ , see a blurring of the distinction between the nursery world Wendy, Peter and John and a ward of bandaged, shocked young men in khaki having a story read by a nurse to calm them.

Timothy Sheader’s imagining, part romp and part elegy for a lost generation, is not a conventional Peter Pan. Fair enough: the Llewellyn boys whose childhood inspired J.M. Barrie all saw action in the 1914/18 war: Edwardian children who played battles met real ones, and the eldest Llewellyn died near Ypres. Barrie’s novel – which came seven years after the sweet fantastical play – is full of darkness and loss. The theme of boys needing a mother’s comfort winds throughout: it gives an added edge to Barrie’s Lost Boys’ dredging up dim memories of lost family life as they play house with Wendy. Michael’s “Mother, I’m glad of you” is followed, as in the book, by the words “They were the last words she was to hear from him for a long time”. That, with the WW1 theme, pulls you up short.
So I did worry for a while that Sheader had pitched the production awkwardly, the historical frame too dark and puzzling for children and the larkiness too childish for adults. But its charm, energy and sincerity win the day. A bright child from eight up, especially if they vaguely know the story and are told about the war centenary, will be fine with it; as to adults, my daughter aged thirty grew up with boys, as I did, and identified straight away with the makeshift games. In Jon BAusor’s design the beds become walls and doors and an island, the khaki soldier ensemble are waves in the lagoon or puppeteers manipulating sinisiter gas-mask mermaids with a horrid suggestion of skeleton, and a nurse darts around with an Aldis-lamp-and-junk Tinkerbell. There is also, naturally, stepladder-and-corrugated iron crocodile, and an even better version of its jaws (no set-spoilers from me) to swallow Hook. Who is David Birrell, half Kaiser-Bill officer, half schoolyard bully.

And there’s flying. Oh yes. Peter Pan, at the centre of it all, is more than wonderful. He is Hiran Abeysekera, raggedly macho, gang-leader and rebellious child at once. He flies under the great gantries on lines whose visibility, oddly, makes his flight all the more miraculous – acrobatic, graceful, wild, joyful. The Darling children fly a little too: Kae Alexander’s thoughtful, gentle Wendy and her brothers comically clumsy as they hurtle off the beds. The players, all adult, create their childishness without strain or cuteness: Thomas Pickles’ Slightly is particularly funny and touching. The pirates have marvellously ramshackle dressing-up box outfits, from Viking and Knight to Saracen and D’Artagnan looks ,put together by Jon Morrell with gleeful loopiness. Beverly Rudd’s bespectacled Smee is particularly taking.

And as the game ends, deeper dusk falls under the trees, and the nurses are back in the field hospital folding the blankets towelcome peacetime, we know that Hook is gone, with his love of “the obliteration of youth – something grand in that!” . And though not all the boys come home, Barrie’s odd, plaintive tale ends as ever with the injunction that “The window must always be kept open” in case lost boys return. Gulp.
box office 0844 826 4242 to 15 June
rating four    


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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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