Over recent years, the Royal Shakespeare Company has set the bar very high for their festive family offerings. Ella Hickson's sensitive, funny and intelligent reworking of the Peter Pan story more than matches the success of Matilda and The Heart of Robin Hood. Indeed, I dare say this production could grace the stage of any West End theatre.
There are two real stars of this show – Hickson's script and Jonathan Munby's production. The reworking of the story is masterful. There is a gleeful use of anachronism and plenty of nods to other classics of children's literature, but it is the emotional punch of the show that really sets it apart. It would be wrong to reveal too much of the detail, but be assured that it works. Brilliantly.
The production is as magical as you could wish for – with spectacular flying and sets, great use of space, lighting, music and projection. It has all the youthful energy that you would ever want – yet never feels over-eager to please. The story and the characters emerge with absolute clarity (essential for younger audience members) but there is enough depth and spirit to keep adults more than entertained.
The performances are also at the heart its success. It is very easy – even with companies as accomplished as the RSC – for adult actors to misjudge their performances when playing children. There are no such worries here. Everyone is very much at home in their juvenile skins without ever having to resort to pantomimic cliché.
Fiona Button is entrancing as a strong, determined young Wendy who is nevertheless not afraid to express her doubts and fears. She is well matched by Sam Swann's sparky Peter. He dares to look beyond the world of the Lost Boys but for all his boldness he isn't brave enough to take that final step – accepting that he has to grow up. Charlotte Mills makes quite an impression as Tink – a delightfully defiant interpretation.
The adult characters are no less memorable. Guy Henry finds the right balance between the malevolence in Captain Hook and his preening vanity – with maybe just a hint of Captain Jack Sparrow thrown in for good measure. The Darling parents (Andrew Woodall and Rebecca Johnson) are no mere ciphers but have their own story to tell – which they carry off with aplomb.
I also very much enjoyed Peter's chorus of six Shadows. Their use of physical theatre techniques brings some moments of real theatrical magic to the stage – and they also contribute greatly to the narrative drive to the evening.
Add into this some fabulous work by the Lost Boys and the Pirates and it adds up to be quite an exceptional ensemble performance. I know this is what we have come to expect from the RSC, but there is something particularly special going on here.
I laughed, I gasped, I cried – it is wonderful to be transported so completely by a piece of theatre. I hope that this production gets a life beyond the end of this run. It has the potential to enthral audiences for many years to come.
Wendy & Peter Pan runs in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 2 March 2013
See Also: 20 Questions with Fiona Button