You would not expect the Bristol Old Vic to come up with a conventional Peter Pan, and they haven’t disappointed. Director Sally Cookson and her team have devised a magnificent show which remains true to the spirit and the story of the original J. M. Barrie works, but moulds them to the talents of this versatile company to create an evening of extraordinary richness, humour, energy and emotion.
All the familiar elements of the story are there: the middle-class family; the Pirates, the crocodile, the Lost Boys really missing their mums; an ululating Tiger Lily and a deeply ambiguous Tinker Bell whose feelings for Peter lead her into dark territory. But all is transformed by the inventiveness and energy of a multi-talented company, most of whom play two or three roles. They act, they sing, they fly, they play instruments, they operate the pulleys so that their fellow actors can fly: there is no nonsense with invisible wires; this is a show that revels in theatricality, that is not afraid to show us how it all works and which knows that genuine wonder comes from seeing creativity in action.
There is a temptation for the enraptured critic to list a succession of brilliant moments or scenes (the Darlings’ dizzying flight through the air, the hilarious mermaids, the dead Wendy’s slow descent to earth) but this is a show which you will want to discover these things and more for yourself. If I had a niggle during the interval it was that I was thrilled and amused, but not yet touched. The second half amply made up for that. The Bacharach dance interlude, Tinker Bell’s gesture of self-sacrifice and Peter’s orchestration of the audience response to it, the return home and the glorious finale will not leave any parent’s, indeed any sentient adult’s, lips or tear-ducts unaffected.
The performances are all first-rate. Tristan Sturrock’s Peter Pan is utterly convincing, physically and emotionally: he conveys beautifully the arrogance (“Even your sleep is cocky” says Hook at one point), the charm, but also the desperation behind the desire to stay young; he is clearly a damaged creature. Madeleine Worrall as Wendy, Saikat Ahamed as Tinker Bell, Stuart McLoughlin as Hook and Mr. Darling and Howard Coggins as Nana, Smee and Tootles also stand out. The varied music (songs and background accompaniment) composed by Benji Bower and performed by a talented trio with occasional help from the cast add greatly to the atmosphere.
Cookson’s production is not afraid to emphasize the darker notes of this story. The threat of violence is never far away; Peter’s reaction when Tootles confesses that it was he who killed Wendy is shocking (and I would say the theatre’s 6+ age suggestion is right). The missing of mothers, the need for stories, the fear of adulthood are powerful themes movingly woven in to the fabric of the show. Like the Bristol Old Vic’s last Christmas hit, Swallows and Amazons, it deserves a life after Bristol.