Peter Pan at National Theatre: this off-kilter adaptation is as as bewildering as it is beguiling

Edwin Evans-Thirlwell
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Peter Pan at the National Theatre

The National Theatre’s adaptation of Peter Pan is a hectic, colourful experience that should appeal to young and old alike. It’s also all over the place in terms of its treatment of JM Barrie’s long-serving fairytale, by turns reactionary and radical.

Director Sally Cookson leaves the barrier between story and stage machinery engagingly fluid – the flying is cheekily explained away with reference to “fairy string” and the counter-weighters are visible, scaling the set in costume.

Designers Michael Vale and Katie Sykes, meanwhile, splash together influences with exhilarating abandon. Never-Never Land has become a jazz fusion bar cum Wacky Warehouse where Lost Boys in bobblehats prat around on space hoppers. Captain Hook’s ship is now a presidential float made up of smashed mantelpieces and casements, dogged by a scrap metal crocodile that’s assembled in plain view.

If it’s easy to fall under the spell of the props, stunts and effects, the play’s treatment of the source text is harder to get a grip on. On the one hand, the Lost Boys are still a gang of emotionally stunted man-children, baying for a surrogate mother to read them bedtime stories.

But there’s a new spin on Tiger Lily – no longer a native American damsel in distress but an off-brand Princess Mononoke – and above all, Anna Francolini’s Hook, a magnificent, crooning proto-feminist figure in platform shoes and a hoop skirt who can’t decide whether to coddle Peter or eat him.

The adaptation’s social outlook fluctuates violently moment to moment. The script declares war on sissy stereotypes about girls, for example, while still expecting them to fix dinner while the blokes are at the office. It castigates Mr Darling for his ogreish paternal tendencies, but also enjoins young Michael to stop crying and “be a man”.

It junks the Disneyfied concept of Tinkerbell only to plump for a Man Friday-type sidekick who speaks cod-Portuguese, seemingly lifted directly from an Indiana Jones movie. Somewhere in amongst all this, Paul Hilton turns in a mouthy but likeable (and very agile) Pan while Madeleine Worrall is touchingly earnest as Wendy.

This is an imaginative, florid production that’s leagues ahead of the average Christmas panto, but while kids will adore its energy, parents may be left as bewildered as they are beguiled.

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