Nearly twenty years ago the National Theatre staged a production of PETER PAN at the Olivier Theatre directed by John Caird as their Christmas show. It was a full-on "bells and smells" production with lavish sets, lengthy running time and star names like Ian McKellen as Captain Hook and Jenny Agutter as Mrs Darling to buttress the relatively unknown Daniel Evans as Peter.
And now it's back in a new co-production with Bristol Old Vic. I wish I had a better experience with it but it was a long slog, especially the first act. Yes they fly... but the show is preciously short on wonder. To be honest I had only booked as Sophie Thompson was due to play Mrs Darling / Captain Hook but she injured her wrist in rehearsals and pulled out. Thank you for that Sophie *glares*
My heart sank when I realized that Paul Hilton (Peter Pan), Anna Francolini (Mrs Darling/Captain Hook) and Lois Chimimba (Tiger Lily) had all played star roles in the National Theatre's Xmas shitefest in 2015 WONDER.LAND, the absolute nadir in theatregoing. But here they were being directed by Sally Cookson who was responsible for the NT's 2014 Xmas show TREASURE ISLAND - again here we have her shtick of having non-traditionalist casting.
What was so depressing particularly about the first half was the grinding inevitability of the bete noir of my theatre-going this year - the absurd 'poor theatre' trops that flag that the production you see has the taint of Director Concept Theatre. Teeth-grindingly over-played comedy roles such as Felix Hayes as Mr Darling and Ahamed Saikat as a gibberish, loutish Tinkerbell (both acting as if he is playing to an audience of retarded 4 year-olds), a woeful music score and, the ultimate banal artistic choice, filling the big bare stage with bits of old wood, corrugated iron and old carpet to turn into scenery and have moth-eaten woollen jumpers and bobble-hats donned as costumes.
It's so redundant as a stylistic choice and here is the real kick in the soft parts - all these faux-poor theatre trappings - and my ticket cost £52. I really have no idea where that money went, it certainly was not reflected in the production. It is the banal thought processes that have reached their laughable limit in the debacle of Emma Rice's sanctioned performances at the Globe this year. They are trumpeted as 'magical' but they haven't the slightest shred of magic about them. Let alone humour...
But even the lumpen thud of an ugly production cannot stand in the way of J.M. Barrie's story of the boy who wouldn't grow up and as the second half is pure plot it thundered along giving Hilton as Peter and Madeleine Worrall as Wendy real chances to shine, particularly in the final scene when Barrie highlights the inherent sadness of Peter's remaining forever outside of life and Wendy's in moving away forever from her childhood. Anna Francolini was okay as Mrs Darling but made hardly any impression as Captain Hook, the NT keep trying to push her as a lead actress in these shows but to paraphrase my dear friend Andrew "as long as she's got a hole in her arse she'll always be supporting". She simply doesn't have the star wattage for lead roles.
I first saw a production of PETER PAN onstage in 1969 - a mere babe in arms - at the New Victoria Theatre which featured Hayley Mills as Peter (in her UK stage debut) and Bill Travers as Captain Hook, I suspect in true JM Barrie fashion I am still pining for that more innocent show...