Peter Pan review at Open Air Theatre, London – ‘a superb and moving production’
JM Barrie’s character has become a watchword for eternal youth. But that youth is often selfish, a desire to defy death, a refusal to mature. Here, in Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel’s supreme 2015 production, Peter is given a reason not to grow up.
By setting it in a military hospital in France during the First World War they show us how growing up at that time – even if only to the age of 18, 17, even 16 – meant going to war.
This production stretches the film that separates childhood and adulthood so thin you can see through it from both sides. The vacillation between those two worlds is enhanced by Jon Bausor’s magnificent design, a huge play fort stuffed full of surprises where everything reverses and reveals another side. Nick Powell’s compositions are an unsettling mix of childish and all too grown up, with nursery rhymes turning into jittery military marches.
Rather than trying to hide the wires that make Peter and Wendy fly, the production flaunts them, making a virtue of its theatricality. The sense of raucous, childish play is always on show, only one step beyond dress up, pillow forts, and make believe.
Sam Angell is a perfect Peter, with a huge smile, completely full of charm and good cheer. He plays against Cora Kirk’s endearing, slightly sad Wendy who is more mature and more aware of what it means to face growing up. There’s brilliant ensemble work, too, from Lewis Griffin as Tootles and Willy Hudson as Curly.
It reaches a point where, as Wendy tells the Lost Boys a bedtime story, the threads are tied together and the wasted potential, the empty beds and the grieving parents that accompany war become distressingly apparent. In its questioning of ideas of chivalry, courage, motherhood, the production becomes an extraordinary celebration of the virtues of being a child.