Review of Peter Pan at the Olivier Theatre

Captain Hook (Anna Francolini) PETER PAN
Captain Hook (Anna Francolini) PETER PAN (c) Steve Tanner

There are days when I get up, face the morning commute, spend an hour stood on a crowded bus with my head thrust into some stranger’s armpit and I really wish I had never grown up to be an adult. Of course, that was impossible, after all, death taxes and growing up are about the only things you can count on happening in life. However, if you want to escape the humdrum and learn the story of the boy that never grew up, the place to be is the Olivier Theatre where Peter Pan has taken up residence for the festive season.

The action takes place in Victorian England where Mr and Mrs Darling are heading off to a party leaving their three children, Wendy (Madeleine Worrall), John (Marc Antolin) and Michael (John Pfumojena) under the care of their ‘nurse’ Nana (Ekow Quartey). However, unbeknown to the parents outside their window lurks the shadowless figure of Peter Pan (Paul Hilton) accompanied by his friend, the fairy Tinkerbell (Saikat Ahamed). The two of them have come back to recover Peter’s shadow which accidentally got left behind when Peter was listening to Mrs Darling tell the children a bedtime story. As soon as the parents have left, Peter and Tinkerbell start searching for the shadow waking Wendy in the process. Peter offers to take Wendy, John and Michael to visit Neverland, where he lives with the lost boys, and the Darling children leap at the chance to make their various nursery games a reality, especially getting the opportunity to meet Princess Tiger Lily (Lois Chimimba) and, hopefully defeat the evil pirate Captain Hook (Anna Francolini) and her sidekick Mr Smee (Felix Hayes). The children all leave with Peter and Tinkerbell heading off to the second star to the right then straight on to morning and adventures beyond their wildest dreams.

As I totally subscribe to the whole idea that ‘going old is mandatory but growing up is optional’ I usually really enjoy going to see shows that are aimed at children. I sang along with the Gruffalo and ‘poop pooped’ with Mr Toad but somehow this version of Peter Pan didn’t really grip me the way these shows normally do. I’m not even 100% sure why but although there were moments I really enjoyed – and yes I did clap along loudly to bring Tinkerbell back to life – I just didn’t fully connect with the show. Having said that, the show is beautifully staged and well acted. All the traditional elements of the Peter Pan story are there. Rather than use a traditional script, the actors took the story and improvised a lot of the play over the course of time and this was taken down by Dramaturg Mike Akers and turned into a final script agreed by all which then becomes the basis for the production under Director Sally Cookson. Overall the script does work well, though I have to be honest and say the opening sequence in the Darling household felt a little bit too long and cumbersome to me. However, once Peter appeared and the children started flying, I felt the show really picked up. The sequence flying off to Neverland in particular, was really effective and congratulations to Aerial Director Gwen Hales for making that scene so good.

On the acting front, out of the very good cast, three people really stood out for me. First Paul Hilton as Peter Pan who not only had the liveness and mischievousness of the boy but also brought a real sense of sadness and loneliness to the part but without ever bringing the audience down. After all, the reality is that while Peter’s life is pretty good with no real responsibilities and nothing to do all day, he has also turned his back on the ‘real’ world or the mainland as he calls it and as with every action a person makes in life, the consequences must be endured. Paul brings Peter to life marvelously and flies around the stage like someone born to it. Second, the unusual idea of having Captain Hook played by a woman really does work well and Anna Francolini brings all the evil, menace, swaggering boastfulness and hidden fear to her portrayal of the Captain to make the character very believable – as much as fairy story characters can be – and almost a figure to feel sorry for, especially in the quite powerful opening to the second act. Finally, a quick mention for Tinkerbell. Close your eyes and picture in your mind how Tinkerbell or any other fairy looks and moves and sounds. Now imagine the complete opposite and you are somewhere near to seeing Saikat Ahamed in the role. This Tinkerbell is a wonderful comic sidekick who virtually steals the show whenever she/he is on stage.

Ultimately, there are a lot of really great things in this production of Peter Pan. For me, it possibly ran a bit too long, and some of the scenes felt as if they could be cut slightly without changing the overall feel of the show. The cast put an amazing amount of effort in and the aerial work is fantastic to observe. Going by the very warm reaction at the end, the majority of the audience really enjoyed the performance and there was a lot of excited chatter from the younger members going on as we left the theatre. Let’s be honest if you are looking for a Christmas treat that will keep the kids happy and entertained then I don’t think you can go far wrong than a visit to the South Bank and a trip to Neverland with Peter and his friends.

4 Stars

Review by Terry Eastham

All children, except one, grow up…
This winter, JM Barrie’s much-loved tale takes flight. When Peter Pan leader of the Lost Boys, loses his shadow during a visit to London, headstrong Wendy (Madeleine Worrall, Jane Eyre) helps him re-attach it. In return she is invited to Neverland – where Tinker Bell the fairy, Tiger Lily and the vengeful Captain Hook, played by Sophie Thompson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Four Weddings and a Funeral) await.

Following the acclaimed Jane Eyre, Sally Cookson brings her wondrously inventive Peter Pan to the NT after a sell-out run at Bristol Old Vic. Exploring the possibilities and pain of growing up, it’s a riot of magic, mischief, music and make-believe.

Peter Pan
at the Olivier Theatre, National
South Bank, London, SE1 9PX
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including an interval

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