Wendy & Peter Pan – January 2014

Experience: 5/10

Adapted by Ella Hickson from the novel by J M Barrie

Directed by Jonathan Munby

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 22nd January 2014

Steve and I are firmly in the ‘kids of all ages’ category, and we’ve enjoyed many a show that’s been aimed at children or a family audience; Swallows And Amazons and The Heart Of Robin Hood spring easily to mind. So we were a bit disappointed to find that this version of the Peter Pan story was sadly lacking in the fun department, with the writer’s feminist agenda making for an uneven and often boring play. We didn’t clap for Tinkerbell (die, bitch, die) but there were enough who did for her to spring to life again. Our fondness for Guy Henry meant that we preferred Captain Hook to the Lost Boys, and although I sniffled a bit during the final scene when Wendy and her mother made an emotional connection over the dead brother/son, this was not enough to make up for the rest of the evening. Once more we will be returning tickets for a second viewing; unusually for us, an evening in front of the telly would be more enjoyable than seeing this production again.

I want to make it clear that my criticism is entirely about the writing; the actors did a splendid job with the material they were given, the set had some magical aspects and I’m glad to say that there was some response from the audience at times, especially during the Tinkerbell poisoning incident. Even so, this is not a production that’s likely to be revived anytime soon. The second circle was empty and there were gaps in the stalls, so word has clearly got round.

We sat by the centre aisle a few rows back. I was a little concerned in case there was audience participation, but that seemed to be the last thing on this writer’s mind. A carpet began just in front of us and led up some stairs onto the stage where there were four beds with old-fashioned brass bedsteads, one positioned diagonally in each corner. There was a chair with a small table beside it in the centre of the stage, various bits of furniture around the place and lots of items suspended above the stage – a crescent moon, a clock, a ship, a crocodile, etc. There were oil lamps for light and at the back of the stage was a dome-shaped window. Stars were also visible on the back wall, and other images appeared there from time to time.

This was a promising start, and I was still happy when the four ‘children’ turned up and began playing games. Using adults for children’s roles can be very useful – apart from anything else the lines tend to be clearer – and my only problem with this aspect of the production was making out the different ages. Other than that, the cast did a fine job as the children: John was very bossy, Michael was more interested in reading, while Tom was suffering from a hacking cough. When Wendy arrived, the boys were playing a rumbustious game of something-or-other which involved lots of fighting – John’s idea – and Wendy was allowed to join in as long as she played the damsel in distress whom they had to rescue. She wasn’t happy about this, but they soon had her trussed up in the chair, and only the inevitable breaking of a lamp stopped the boys in their tracks.

Mr and Mrs Darling arrived to tuck the children up in bed, and it was clear that they had very loving relationships with their kids. Tom’s cough worried his parents, so the doctor was called in. He wore a tall black hat and listened to Tom’s chest and back, gave them some medicine and left. When the children were all asleep, Peter and his crew got in by the window and took Tom away with them, though Peter did pause to look at Wendy before he left. He also took Tom’s teddy bear, but put that back and then went to hide in the big doll’s house back right. Apart from the bear, the bed was empty when the children woke up.

The effect of losing a child was demonstrated in a very abrupt way. Mr Darling took all the bedclothes away in a big bundle, and the impression I had was that no one was to mention the subject again. A year later, Mrs Darling was still grieving and Wendy was doing her best to make things better for the rest of the family. John was being very unpleasant – acting out, we call it now – and Michael was burying himself in science. Wendy helped her father with his bow tie – he was off to a big social event which was important for his work – and Mrs Darling finally relented and dressed herself up to join him.

Once alone, Wendy talked to Tom for a while, before Peter arrived to look for his lost shadow. He found it – it was hiding somewhere in the room – and after a lively chase he managed to catch it. Then we learned about the other shadows. Peter played his mouth organ to summon them, and they were the ones who held him up so he could fly (for the most part). We also met Tinkerbell; at first she was a small light which the shadows could throw to one another, but later she actually appeared in the flesh – a large solid fairy with small pink feathery wings.

Wendy was taken aback by all these new characters at first, and argued with Peter over a number of things. She also misled him about kissing, which was a bit naughty but understandable. Then John and Michael woke up, and with some help from Tinkerbell’s fairy dust, and the wires which the shadows attached to each of them, the Darling children were off to Neverland.

While they travelled there, the shadows took the beds and started spinning them round before removing them completely. Trees appeared at the back and there were other items dangling down. The crocodile came on, and that was a marvellous sight. Played by Arthur Kyeyune, the croc wore a peachy coloured frock coat and top hat, but it was the movements which made the character. Arthur started by walking across the stage, but then he got down on all fours and with graceful sweeping actions he conveyed the almost double-jointed motion of a crocodile. I could have watched him for much longer, but sadly we were soon back with the Darling kids. I was feeling a bit down by this time, as I didn’t like these versions of the children and wasn’t expecting much of interest to happen, but I was prepared to soldier on just in case.

Some white cloths fell from the sky and Wendy slid down them. She’d been shot by Tootles, one of the Lost Boys, who’d been told by Tinkerbell that Wendy was a bird and that Peter wanted him to shoot it – naughty Tinkerbell. When he saw the body lying there, Tootles’ first reaction was jubilation that he’d done what Peter had wanted. Then he looked a little closer and realised that he might have made a mistake. He tried to cover the body up with the white cloth, but eventually the truth had to come out. Fortunately Wendy recovered, so that was fine, and Peter arrived, so that was fine, and they all went off to the Lost Boys’ lair.

The stage rose up to show us the underground home of the Lost Boys. Tinkerbell had a bed top right, and there was a lot of ‘stuff’ everywhere, too much to identify, never mind remember. The boys wanted Wendy to be their mother, and this was obviously something she wasn’t keen to do. She had agreed to come to Neverland to find Tom, so after some unsavoury encounters with the boys’ efforts at cooking – someone had taken ‘pooh-sticks’ a bit too literally – she left the hideout to look for her ‘lost’ brother.

At the same time, we saw Mrs Darling leaving her husband carrying a large suitcase; he was distraught at her departure. For a brief moment, Wendy and Mrs Darling were both standing on the stage in their own respective universes, but with a hint of connection in that Wendy was calling on her mother for help. Mrs Darling went on her way and Wendy was left to figure things out for herself.

Shortly after this she met Tiger Lily, a young lady of African origin who was disinclined to make friends. Back at the hideout, Tinkerbell wound Peter up so that he would go off and attack Captain Hook, which he did. However Hook and his pirates snuck up on Wendy and captured her, and when Tiger Lily came to help Wendy she was captured too. Then the crocodile chased Hook off stage while the pirates fought off the Lost Boys. Peter was left alone on stage to give us the “awfully big adventure” line, and then they took the interval.

I did consider leaving at this point, but decided there was just enough on offer to warrant staying to the end. For the restart, Peter was lying on the ground and Tinkerbell was speaking the eulogy over his body with the Lost Boys beside her. Fortunately, Peter was just playing a joke on the others, and soon sprang back to life. The next section showed Mr Darling having a bad time without his wife, while images of newspaper headlines about Suffragettes passed across the screen at the back, suggesting that Mrs Darling had suddenly become politicised and decided to join the fight for emancipation. The lady herself was walking around the stage with the suitcase while Wendy was also standing on stage with her hands tied.

Shortly after this came the arrival of the pirate ship, a treat well worth waiting for. With a gentle mist floating around it, the ship appeared at the back and ‘sailed’ on to the stage, coming to rest across the rear portion of the thrust. There was a big skull for the figurehead, and a huge pair of skeleton hands on either side of the bows, and the whole effect was marvellous.

Wendy came on deck wearing a nice blue dress which Hook had given her to replace her nightdress. He soon began to tell her lies about Peter, how he wasn’t coming to rescue her because he’d forgotten all about her, etc. He presented Wendy with a tiara, and as she began to feel better about her situation, she even had a little dance with the Captain. Mind you, Smee was clearly smitten with Captain Hook as well – they had a little exchange which was full of references to Smee wanting to retire to a little cottage somewhere with a special ‘someone’…

The ship was turned round at some point so that we could listen in on Wendy’s conversation with the pirates’ cabin boy, Martin. About this time I was wondering what Wendy saw in Peter. They didn’t get on, they had nothing in common, and it seemed to me that, far from giving us a female perspective on this familiar story, the writer was regurgitating the same old relationship nonsense from Victorian times. Anyway, Wendy soon gave up the secret of Peter Pan’s hideout when Captain Hook threatened to kill Tiger Lily, but then both girls escaped from the ship, as did Martin.

Back in the underground lair, Peter was talking about fighting Captain Hook. Some of the language was updated, which robbed the character of some of his charm. He seemed more knowing than he should be at times, which took him away from the childlike innocence which is so important for this story. At one point he ended up lying on top of Tinkerbell but not in a sexual way, much to Tinkerbell’s chagrin.

Hook found Peter as he lay collapsed on the floor of the hideout. Instead of killing him there and then, Hook poisoned his drink, giving us an insight into his motivation as he did so; apparently Hook wanted his own lost childhood back. Tinkerbell dashed in to save Peter by drinking the poison herself, and after she ‘died’, Peter asked for help from the audience – I’ve already commented on the outcome of that request. After blowing his whistle to summon his shadows, Peter was off to attack Hook again, leaving Tinkerbell to recover in the hideout.

Around this time I had been thinking that it would be nice if Wendy and the other girls could take down Hook instead of Peter, and that scenario came a step closer when both Tiger Lily and Wendy turned up at the hideout. Wendy had to work really hard to persuade the others to join the team, but her speech won them over and soon they were Team Wendy and off to attack Hook themselves.

With Peter absent, Nibs (I think) was challenged for leadership of the Lost Boys by John, and they had a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide who would be in charge. Unfortunately, the pirates crept up and captured them, so it was back to the pirate ship again. This time, I noticed that the skull at the front had red eyes. (I also took a note that the Davy Jones’ locker joke was quite good, but sadly neither Steve nor I can remember it now.)

The girls arrived and rescued everyone, but then it all went wrong and strange things began to happen. There was cannon fire, the lights went out, and apparently Tinkerbell managed to put them back on. Hook shot Tiger Lily, Wendy was captured, Peter charged to the rescue and the crocodile arrived. The sails turned so that they could be used as a screen, and images of a mother and child were shown on them – possibly Peter’s mother with the new baby?

Somehow or other it all ended with the pirates vanquished, and since Wendy was still insisting on finding Tom, Peter took her up to the clouds to see him. They were on a bed and the images at the back showed they were rising up. Peter explained that the stars were Lost Boys, and if their families were still grieving for them then they had to stay up there in the cold and dark. If the family could be happy for just one moment, the boy would fall down to Neverland and could play there for ever. Then Wendy and Peter were flying on wires, the bed was taken away and one star fell to earth.

Back on the ground, there was a proper kiss between Wendy and Peter, and then the rest of the Lost Boys showed up, as did Tom. Wendy had accepted that Tom would have a much better time in Neverland than if he came back with her, so he was able to go off and play while she and John and Michael went back to their real lives with the help of happy thoughts and fairy dust.

The bedroom was reformed pretty quickly and we discovered Mr Darling lying on John’s bed, apparently suffering greatly because his wife had left him. When she came back in he was delighted, and promised to do whatever she wanted. However she had only been taking her dressmaking work to show to prospective employers so that the family could earn more money, and had never intended to leave her husband at all; the Suffragette headlines had been a complete red herring.

The children reappeared from the wardrobe – a nod to another well-known children’s book perhaps? – and fortunately neither of their parents had missed them. With most of the family heading off for fun and games, Wendy had a few minutes alone with her mother to tell her that she’d seen Tom – this was the moment of my sniffles, and the only time I felt emotionally engaged with the performance. Wendy and Mrs Darling picked up swords to have a fight themselves but were called away by their menfolk, and as they left the bedroom we could just see Peter standing at the window, briefly, before the lights went out.

I’m delighted to say that Hook was booed when he came out to take his bow – as it should be – and there was a decent amount of applause at the end despite the relative lack of noise during the performance. We enjoyed the second half more than the first, but certainly won’t bother seeing this again. If my notes seem a bit patchy, it simply reflects my lack of enthusiasm for this particular piece, which neither seemed to understand the original nor supply an interesting variation for us to enjoy. Admittedly we were probably influenced by our fond memories of the RSC’s productions of Peter Pan in years gone by, but there was still too little fun in this version for either of us, and the general lack of response from the audience seemed to reflect that view.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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