The National Theatre of Scotland returns to the Barbican with a native Peter Pan based on a brilliant idea: that the Lost Boys find their real-life, industrial counterparts in the gangs of “rivet boys” working on the Forth Bridge in Edinburgh at the end of the 19th century, a decade or so before J M Barrie wrote his tremendous play.
So, Cal MacAninch’s Mr Darling, a brown-suited engineer at home in Queensferry, is transformed into a bare-torsoed, black-kilted foreman of a Captain Hook, and the red steel bridge, designed in three sections by Laura Hopkins, is a foliage-infested forest when it revolves through 180 degrees, even assuming the outline of a giant Jolly Roger.
The adaptation by David Greig and the production by John Tiffany falters only in the representation of Tiger Lily as a pair of she-wolves of no fixed fictional abode, but the central conceit is so audacious and imaginative that the show wins you over and stifles memories of the RSC’s radical, definitive version by Trevor Nunn and John Caird on this same stage.
And in Kevin Guthrie, still a student at drama school, the NTS has uncovered a new star. Guthrie’s Peter Pan is a marvellous, muscular maverick, first seen walking down the side of the proscenium into the little Darlings’ bedroom in search of his shadow, and leading a campaign for freedom in flying with exceptional brio and bravura.
We are never asked if we believe in fairies. Peter saves his self-sacrificing Tinkerbell – a magically concocted flying fire-ball – by the force of his own belief. Nor is Nana, the dog, a superannuated cuddly toy: she’s an inanimate prop pushed around by two serving girls.
Normally, I’d resist this new hard-headedness. But Tiffany’s production, and the ensemble performance, is irresistible, bathed in traditional sea shanties, witches’ reels, railroad songs and even a beautiful mother’s lament sung by Annie Grace (she also composed the item) as Mrs Darling and echoed by Kirsty Mackay’s wonderfully well-acted Wendy.
Wendy is heartbroken when Peter returns after twenty years. But she reawakens in the image of her own daughter, Jane, and the story continues. On Neverland, everyone flies, including Captain Hook, to the musical direction of Davey Anderson; the NTS has built a brand new bridge between Barrie’s legend and his own Scottish roots - and reclaimed the masterpiece as their own.