Peter Pan: Flying Back to Neverland

By Lucinda Naughton

In these difficult times it is encouraging to still have access to theatre online. Peter Pan, recorded through National Theatre Live on 10th June 2017 as a co-production with Bristol Old Vic Theatre, is a wonder for the family to see.

Peter Pan is sweet, nostalgic, moving, and magically impressive. The production is more true to James Matthew Barrie’s book than the film – amongst the friendships and warmth, there is a stronger sense of danger and fear in the face of adventure. Sally Cookson’s direction is superb, layering depth to the story and characters so that the production may be enjoyed by all ages. There is complexity and truth within the concluding scenes, making them far more engaging than a simple happy ending.

The story follows the three siblings, Wendy (Madeleine Worrall), John (Marc Antolin) and Michael (John Pfumojena), on a journey with Peter Pan to Neverland – a magical world where children live forever, filled with fairies and wonder. Yet they are also met with adversity as a vengeful Captain Hook and his pirates await them. The play is full of adventure, magic, mystery, and burning familial love.  

The cast bring much depth and energy to the stage. The opening scene sets the tone of the play beautifully with Wendy making the bed, which symbolises home, warmth and love – things the children crave throughout the play. Her head-strong character is evident straight away: “…after that, I knew I must grow up. You always know after you’re two. Two is the beginning of the end.” Worrall’s Wendy has incredible depth, and she strikes a great balance between a youthful and nurturing portrayal.

Felix Hayes is a very entertaining and erratic Mr Darling (Hayes also portrays Smee), hilariously refusing to take his medicine like his son and constantly being told off by Nana – the family dog-nurse played wittily by Ekow Quartey – for being naughty. Anna Francolini as Mrs Darling (and Captain Hook) balances well with Hayes, treating him occasionally like the other children, and bringing much strength and (needed) practicality to the scene. Paul Hilton captures Peter Pan’s fierce sense of adventure beautifully. He brings energy, wit and soulfulness to his character. Hilton and Worrall’s chemistry as Peter Pan and Wendy is exquisite. Cookson brings out the life of the children in the play using physical theatre, which is very effective and engaging.

There are some gender swaps within the play, which for the most part is a successful attempt to liven and freshen the story we know so well, and to break gendered stereotypes. This was certainly apparent in Francolini’s ferocious portrayal of Captain Hook; she wears a fantastic hoop skirt and is the “picture of menace”. Francolini brings not only a witty, edgy and frightening presence, but also great depth to her performance and dimension to her character. There is something beneath her evil exterior that is touched by Peter Pan and Wendy in certain moments. This adds an exciting element to the character we know well. Quartey’s Nana dressed in a white frilly costume also works well and adds an easy, humorous element to the character. While Saikat Ahamed’s Tinker Bell puts in a strong performance, there didn’t seem to be much point to the gender swap.

Michael Vale’s set design adds to the feel of the play. Vale captures warm and foreboding scenes well, bringing the story visually to life. Aideen Malone’s lighting design also compliments the tones of the play. Malone depicts truly scary moments, as well as the exciting magical world of Neverland. The magical effects throughout the play are beautiful, creating the world of Peter Pan wonderfully – and the children are still able to fly through the clouds! The aerial flying techniques are great fun to watch and director of aerial, Gwen Hales, keeps the flying inventive and exciting.

Benji Bower’s music and Dominic Bilkey’s sound design creates a beautiful score that runs throughout the play. The songs are fun and entertaining, bringing life to the story with an underlying sadness. Francolini’s voice is hauntingly beautiful as Mrs Darling and hauntingly dangerous as Hook. Katie Sykes’s costume design complements the tone of the play. The three children are dressed in baggy-striped pyjamas – much more practical than night gowns – while Peter Pan has a bright green suit with green sneakers, adding a fun element. The ensemble is dressed in matching pyjama pants throughout the play, but their shirts and accessories shift; there are colourful vests and beanies, with walkie-talkie sticks for the Lost Boys and creative jackets with hats and boots for the pirates. The consistency of the pyjama pants is a great tool to keep the ‘bed-time-story’ feeling alive throughout the production. The costumes are simple and fun; they are very successful in keeping to the youthful magical tone of the play.

Peter Pan is fun, exciting and very moving theatre to watch, and can be thoroughly enjoyed by the whole family. Cookson’s devised production is inventive, playful and a real success. Through the fun costume design, powerful score and strong cast, Peter Pan achieves its objective – to entertain and move the audience, while also creating a strong sense of nostalgia for the adults. A fun family play to see in these uncertain times.

Watch National Theatre Live & Bristol Old Vic Theatre’s production of Peter Pan here.