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JM Barrie’s Peter Pan

Hiran Abeysekera in Peter Pan at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Hiran Abeysekera in Peter Pan at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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The story of Peter Pan has undergone many transformations since its first production in 1904 including those by Disney and Steven Spielberg. Even in this year, major adaptations of the work have been undertaken from Broadway’s Finding Neverland to Joe Wright’s upcoming Pan, proving if nothing else, JM Barrie’s original is a source work still ripe for the plundering.

Today audiences are more likely to find Peter Pan in the pantomime schedules, rich in magical effects, cloying sentiment or heavily altered to suit the season. Here, directors Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel remember the first generation of Peter Pan’s readers by using the conflict of the First World War as a catalyst for re-imagining the play with a cast of adult actors.

For thousands of young men and women it was a short step from the nursery to the battlefield. Indeed Captain George Llewelyn Davies, Barrie’s ward and the inspiration for the character of Peter Pan, lost his life to a sniper at Ypres. Sheader and Steel’s production evolves from the organised chaos of a blown-out field hospital in France. Despite the sentimental stigma often attached to Barrie’s original, elements of duty, hierarchy and death, which proliferate throughout the story, further resonate when seen from this wartime perspective.

The magic thankfully remains intact and set designer Jon Bausor has surpassed himself in creating a stunning Neverland that cuts through the khaki and grey of the war as sharply as Nick Powell’s haunting original score. It is inhabited by an endearing gang of Lost Boys, genuinely fearsome pirates and a host of puppet creatures from the imagination of designer Rachael Canning. Flying was always going to be an issue in a venue with no ceiling, but a system of bungee ropes and cables, with fellow actors providing counterweights allows greater freedom of flight and interpretation than traditional methods.

As Peter, an unceasingly energetic Hiran Abeysekera throws himself through the air with extreme confidence, immediately establishing the arrogance and innocence of a boy who has never grown up. A few contemporary tweaks to Peter’s character only help endear Abeysekera to his audience and his affinity with Kae Alexander’s deeply practical Wendy seals the deal. David Birrell’s tyrannical Hook is the prime manipulator in the garb of a war hero, urging his ragtag troop of pirates to victory with threats and underhand tactics.

The ensemble of adult Lost Boys, longing for the warmth of home fires and the comfort of a mother’s love, not only provide a rich source of humour for the play, but also clarify Sheader and Steel’s vision. While remaining refreshingly entertaining, richly imaginative and unapologetically theatrical, the play establishes a sense of perspective to the heroism and ideology of the First World War.

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A hugely entertaining, richly imaginative adaptation that also lends perspective to the ideologies of the First World War
Paul Vale
Paul has been writing for The Stage since 1998 as a critic and feature writer. He is also part of The Stage's Edinburgh Fringe review team.