Hoopla! John Caird's ambitious staging of J.M.Barrie's Peter Pan has flown back to its cavernous home on the Olivier stage for a second successive (and no doubt highly successful) year. All testimony to Caird and Trevor Nunn's sparkling adaptation of the evergreen tale, as well as those ingenious, awe-inspiring sets designed by John Napier.
Napier - who already lists Les Mis, Cats and Sunset Boulevard on his CV - has conjured up an amazing confection of gnarled caves, wave-cut grottoes, buildings and boats, as extravagant as anything you'd find in a Disney theme-park. These swivel, rise, fall and generally make spectacular use of the stage area.
The flying scenes are marvellously realised, too, especially when a horseshoe-shaped sweep of gauze curtain covers the stage, giving the illusion that the kids are gliding in a tank of cloud-filled ether.
The fable of the little boy who wouldn't grow up (narrated by Michael Bryant) is one of lost innocence, swashbuckling pirates, Indians, mermaids and fairies, and is guaranteed to bring out the child in anyone. As if to reinforce this point all the roles, even those of the Darling offspring, are acted out by a bunch of frivolous adults.
Justin Salinger is mischievous and sprightly in the part of Peter, lending a real naivete to lines like 'To die would be an awfully big adventure!'. Rebecca Johnson as the maternal Wendy, transforms from a demure girl in a night-dress to a pre-Raphaelite vision from a Burne-Jones painting. The Darling's canine wet nurse, Nana, is energetically played by Jan Knightley, whilst the naughty Tinkerbell is reduced to a flickering light pen effect.
But the splendid David Troughton steals all the best lines and scenes, playing both the curmudgeonly Mr Darling - a 'cipher in his own home' - who takes to living in Nana's kennel; and the dastardly Captain Hook. The latter plots against Peter and his Lost Boys so he can have Wendy mother his band of brigands, all the while on the run from the croc with the clock.
In these politically-correct times, Barrie's notion that Wendy should return to Neverland once a year to help Peter with his spring cleaning seems almost unconscionable. Indeed, when the subject does arise, it elicits the sort of loud hiss from the audience hitherto reserved for the appearance of Hook. All of which shows how things have moved on in the eighty-odd years since the tale was written.
Otherwise, the play is a chocolate-box of gorgeous images and emotions, ably put together by this year's director Fiona Laird. It's all frightfully funny, and as Captain Hook would put it, 'Good form'.
The following review dates from the 1997/1998 production of Peter Pan at the National.
If you thought believable special effects were the domain of Spielberg and the wizards of Hollywood, think again. Peter Pan at the National Theatre is a triumph not just of great acting but of magnificent set design and flight scenes you scarcely thought possible on a stage.
J.M. Barrie s classic tale has also lost nothing to time. At the heart of it, of course, is the perennial mischief-maker Peter Pan (Daniel Evans) who tempts Wendy Darling (Claudie Blakly) and her brothers off to Never Land for a series of adventures. The foursome, as well as the six Lost Boys, are played by a troupe of young adults who revel in the opportunity to regress. Evans as a Welsh Peter and Blakly are especially good. Evans has a distinctly naïve quality about his performance which really makes you believe he is only a child. Never Land is also populated by a supporting cast of Pirates, Red Indians and Mermaids, all suitably colourful.
The lord of Never Land citizenry, however, is Sir Ian McKellen, hamming it up as a Captain Hook who, though evil, is obsessed with maintaining an Etonian brand of ‘good form . McKellen clearly loves his role and it is refreshing to see an excellent classical actor having such swashbucklingly good fun.
Back in the adult world of Edwardian London, McKellen doubles nicely as the dotty Mr Darling. Jenny Agutter as Mrs Darling is less good but, to be fair, she doesn t have a great deal to do. Overseeing it all is Alec McCowen as a great storyteller, wandering the stage and weaving an even more magical spell around the action.
The real magic, however, springs from John Napier s set. His intricate vision of Never Land, and in particular the Mermaid s Grotto and Pirate Ship, is nothing short of awe-inspiring. As are the flight scenes in which Peter, Wendy and her brothers (Adrian Ross-Magenty and Daniel Hart) fly from their Bloomsbury home - past Big Ben naturally - to Never Land. A judicious use of dry ice and some swirling lights created a mystic journey which prompted spontaneous applause and the odd gasp from the audience.
At three hours long, Peter Pan is not for the restless, but every moment is worth it. With a Never Land as compelling as this, it s no surprise that Peter didn t want to grow up.
David Dobson, December 1997