There’s magic – and a liberal sprinkling of fairy dust – in the air at this imaginative adaptation of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre that manages to pull off the clever trick of being heartwarming, funny and poignant all at the same time.
Far from the cosy confines of the Darling household in Kensington that is the customary location for Peter Pan to begin, the opening scene is instead set in a field hospital in the Somme, the ‘lost boys’ of JM Barrie’s story becoming a poignant metaphor for the ‘lost generation’ who died in the First World War. From the outset, it’s clear that this is no Disney reincarnation.
The little girl sitting next to us (definitely younger than the 9+ age recommendation given), who was clutching her sparkly Tinkerbell doll, winced as a screaming soldier with a bloodied stomach was stretchered onstage – thankfully a curtain was quickly drawn around him. Yet despite the atrocities, the rest of the walking wounded were in chirpy, companionable mood, using playful banter and joshing each other to mask the grim reality of their situation. Finding comfort with fond chat about loved ones back home, the scene mellowed as a young nurse – whom we discover is Wendy – picks up a book and starts to read a story of the boy who can fly and who wouldn’t grow up. Cue the star of the show.
Dressed in ragged garments with streaks of war paint daubed on face and body, Peter (nimbly played by Hiran Abeysekera) has cheeky school-boy charm aplenty, with a playful mix of cocky bravado and endearing naivety. And boy, can that fella fly!
Tinkerbell is a surprise too, depicted as an old-fashioned lantern with limbs – an ingenious touch by puppet designer Rachael Canning, but a slight disappointment for our Tinkerbell-toting neighbour who was obviously hoping for a more Disneyfied rendition (though it was bit Pixar lamp).
And Tinker Bell, true to her name, is a bit of a tinker, with her behaviour veering between rascally mischief and jealous spite. She takes an instant dislike to Wendy (part of a vague love triangle) and her frequent criticism of Peter – “You silly ass!” – garnered giggles from the audience.
If the flying scenes are a benchmark for a performance of Peter Pan, then this production soars. With amazing acrobatic prowess (and the aid of some deftly operated bungee ropes and pulleys), Peter rises into the air and swoops and swirls high above the audience, like some majestic bird of prey. There are more comedic moments as Wendy, John and Michael try to imitate him, fuelled with a touch of Tink’s fairy dust, and soon we are all whisked to a dreamy Never Land where pink blossom flows and childish charms are celebrated.
After a rocky start (oops, Tootles shoots down Wendy on the advice of naughty Tinker Bell), the lost boys create a new domicile for their guest: the very first Wendy house, complete with Tommy helmet chimney to continue the war motif. There’s a touch of Snow White’s motherliness as Wendy becomes surrogate, with Tootles (charmingly played by Eben Figueiredo) redeeming himself and earning Dopey’s mantle of most endearing.
Their happy domesticity is short-lived, however, as a menacing Captain Hook with a “Your Country Needs You” moustache soon appears with his motley crew, hellbent on wreaking his revenge on Peter whom he blames for Crocodilegate and the loss of his hand. Hook’s evil plan is set in motion as he kidnaps Wendy, but then goes awry when Tinkerbell drinks the poison in a kamakazee attempt to save Peter. Who would have thought an audience could have such empathy with a tin lantern? It’s testimony to the talents of puppeteer Rachel Donavan that there was an audible gasp as Tinker Bell’s light started to fade fast, and the audience were invited to help out (the only time that this production veered into panto heartland). “I believe in fairies!” we cried in unison before clapping to revive her.
Despite its touching war resonances, this lively production still conveys much of the Boy’s Own Adventure spirit of the original with boisterous pillow fights (all feathers flying) and sing-songs, including 10 in the Bed that results in the ‘little one’ Michael falling out every time. The fact that the lost boys are so innocent in the ways of the world also brings a smile. None has any idea what a mother is like, and they refer to ‘buttons’ as ‘kisses’, and ‘kisses’ as ‘thimbles’. Peter Pan also comically assumes the role of Man of the House, greeting Wendy with a customary ‘Do you want a thimble, old lady?’ though any of Wendy’s attempt to flirt go sublimely over his head.
The scene changes and sets are also very cleverly done, with hospital beds turning into a perilous pile to become Skull Island, where writhing soldiers twist and turn to represent the rising seas as Wendy and Peter are in danger of drowning. Special mention must also go to the inventive puppetry.
Umbrella jellyfish and fish fashioned out of striped pyjamas bob around the stage, while a sinister set of sirens with corrugated tails and gas mask eyes swirl menacingly. But it’s the crocodile, created from a snapping step ladder with a union jack tongue, that is the real showstopper.
The action culminates with spectacular swashbuckling and swordsmanship as Hook’s pirate crew (an anachronistic mash-up of vikings, ninjas and highwaymen) battle against the lost boys who manage to pull off an unlikely triumph. With the tick-tocking of the clock heralding a final appearance from the crocodile, hapless Hook is dramatically devoured Jaws-style.
The play ends as the war is over and the lost boys – now more recognisable as the young soldiers from the start of the piece – are giving their war-time recollections. In an echo of JM Barrie’s own life, one of the boys has died (Barrie’s adopted son, George Llewelyn Davies was killed in action in Flanders in 1915) whereas others give happier accounts of their life after the war.
The only one who has remained unchanged is Peter, ever ebullient and still resisting the chance to grow up. Will Wendy go back to Never Land with him? Instead, she grabs her suitcase and heads home with the words: “To live will be an awfully big adventure.”
Why go To see a wonderfully imagined staging of one of the world’s best-loved children’s stories in the magical setting of Regent’s Park.
Who is it best for Older children who enjoy the adventurous spirit of Peter Pan but who will also get something from the poignant World War I connection.
Our Favourite Bit The flying scenes are spectacular as the characters really soar into the audience – and it looks so much fun! Our 10-year-old critic, Joe, also enjoyed singing along to It’s A Long Way to Tipperary and Keep the Home Fires Burning.
Top Tip As the theatre is outside with no cover, you need to be prepared for the vagaries of the British weather: pack sunscreen, sunhat, umbrella and warm cover-ups. Bring a blanket too, as it can get very chilly in the evenings.
Don’t Go If you’re expecting Tinker Bell in a green sparkly costume.
While You’re Here The Open Air Theatre is closest to the Baker Street side of Regent’s Park (so quite far from London Zoo, which is closer to Camden Town). Close by, however, there is a boating lake with pedalos, a duck pond and Queen Mary’s Gardens, which features more than 12,000 roses of 400 varieties. There’s also plenty of lawn space for lounging, picnics and play.
Fun fairy facts In 2009, Tinker Bell became the smallest waxwork ever to be made at Madame Tussauds, measuring only five and a half inches. In 2010, Tinker Bell was presented with the 2,418th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, becoming the thirteenth fictional character and the sixth Disney character to receive the honour (the others are Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Snow White, Winnie-the-Pooh and Kermit the Frog).
Did you know? In 1929, JM Barrie gave all the rights to Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital. In 1987, fifty years after Barrie’s death, coyright expired under UK law. However, the following year a unique Act of Parliament restored royalty income from all versions of Peter Pan to the hospital, which means that very sick children there will continue to benefit from JM Barrie’s generous gift. Barrie requested that the amount raised from Peter Pan should never be revealed, and the hospital has always honoured his wishes.
Author notes JM Barrie first used Peter Pan as a character in a section of The Little White Bird (1902), an adult novel. He returned to the character as the centre of his stage play entitled Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, which premiered on 27 December 1904 in London. The play was highly popular, running to 1913. Following the success of the 1904 play, Barrie’s publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, extracted chapters of The Little White Bird and republished them in 1906 under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with the addition of illustrations by Arthur Rackham. Barrie adapted and expanded the play’s story line as a novel, published in 1911 as Peter and Wendy.