When Leeds Playhouse announced they were staging yet another version of Peter Pan you couldn’t help but wonder haven’t we had more than enough of the boy who refuses to grow up?
What made this bold adaptation by Ella Hickson of the JM Barrie classic different is that it told this beloved story from the viewpoint of Wendy Darling, while still keeping in the Lost Boys, pirates, fairy dust, the flying and a crocodile.
The reality is that the boy who refuses to grow up is. like so many adolescent boys, a self-serving narcissist, who is actually a bit of a prat. Peter’s reckless fearlessness put his gang in danger and his compulsive actions meant he could never defeat his arch enemy Captain Hook. Peter Losassa offered a lively Pan unfretted by maturity, who led his gang of forever young misfits with great gusto, but little intelligence.
In contrast Wendy on the cusp of adulthood in this version was sensible and brave as she headed off to Neverland in search of her younger brother Tom who died. The brilliant idea that underpins Hickson’s version is introducing this extra sibling, which makes perfect sense of Barrie’s central theme of loss after his own brother died aged 14 and shows how we can remember lost ones in a healthy way.
Amber James really shined as a feisty Wendy who formed a girl gang with Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily, here reinvented as a ninja, to focus Peter’s preening ego on defeating Hook so she could heal her family drowning in grief. Hickson used the nuances of James’ intelligent performance to explore what it means to transition from a girl to a woman, but also explore some dark themes around death and closure.
So, it is incredible that many parents displayed Peter levels of narcissism by deciding to ignore the clear age warning dragging along some very young children as if this was a panto, which it isn’t. It’s little wonder many of them were kicking off and running up and down the aisles by the end. It seems it’s not just Peter who needed to grow up.
It would be wrong to paint Wendy & Peter as a misery fest because there are some spectacular fight scenes daringly choreographed by fight director Terry King. All too often stage fighting can feel a bit forced, but co-directors Jonathan Munby and Rupert Hands had really drilled the cast who got stuck into some scary looking swordplay, much to the delight of Pan fans of all ages.
Flying is a rarely used theatrical skill, but the weeks of pre-rehearsal preparation the cast put in really paid off as they elegantly soared round Colin Richmond’s big set, complete with a pirate ship wheeled on and off as the Lost Boys and the pirates battle it out.
A strong cast skilfully delivered the big set pieces while delving deep into Hickson’s complex, but often funny, text. Corey Montague-Sholay’s John was full of childish bravado, whilst on a confident theatrical debut Stefan Race’s Michael seemed to have wandered straight out of Brideshead Revisited. James Steventon’s Brummie Lost Boy Curly, and Richard Leeming as the posh Slightly were great fun.
Of the pirates Brian Lonsdale as a Smee besotted with Hook got most of the adult laughs and Thomas Pickles was a comically reluctant brigand. Simone Lewis was a raucous cockney Tinkerbell winning most of junior laughs, whilst highlighting her jealousy of Wendy’s friendship with her best mate Peter.
David Birrell needed all his experience to play a careworn Hook, a million away from the camp panto versions, who could only find validation fighting Peter as he rages against his own mortality. Leon Smith did his best as the Crocodile but for this audience a puppet might have better
This sympathetic reimagining of a classic could have quite easily fallen flat on its face, but Ella Hickson managed to meld the traditional story with modern sensibilities in a way that made absolute sense. Traditionalists should enjoy this fresh adaptation, and those simply seeking a good night out with plenty of well executed action sequences will have fun too.
Wendy & Peter Pan is at Leeds Playhouse until 22nd Jan 2022. To book 0113 2137700 or visit https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/wendy-peter-pan/ check daily for performance status.
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 18th December 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★