I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with Peter Pan and in the version by the late Willis Hall, some of JM Barrie’s attitudes still cause jaw to drop and teeth to grind. However, in Birmingham Rep’s no-holds-barred production, there’s enough spectacle, humour and magic to keep this ageing sceptic happy for most of the time.
The cosy Edwardian solidity of the opening is emphasised by a chorus street scene (Mr Darling returning from the City), the nursery window in the substantial villa aglow as a nice lady storyteller sets the scene – her secret will be revealed much later in the evening. Gay Soper is poised and reassuring, despite the adult wit and whimsy of her narration being stuffed with long words for the young audience to wonder at.
Then the familiar story unfolds: Peter Pan luring the Darling children to Neverland, encounters, battles and bedtime stories with the Lost Boys, the Pirates and Tiger Lily’s Indians, and, finally, Wendy’s acceptance of the grown-up world of respectability and the return home.
The magic is certainly there in the visual effects (designer Peter McKintosh, lighting Paul Pyant). Transformation scenes open out in clever perspective, skies light up with stars, characters take to the air in mid-song (courtesy of Freedom Flying), there’s a floppy dog and an enormous crocodile, and Tinkerbell the fairy comes to life ingeniously as a darting red light. George Stiles’ music successfully underscores the varying moods of the play and is played with considerable brio under MD Stephen Ridley. Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe contribute some 15 songs, including terrific comedy numbers for the Pirates and rather bland songs of sentiment and selfhood.
Peter Caulfield’s energetic Peter is impressively low on tweeness, though the charm of the character still eludes me. Not so Captain James Hook, expertly played by David Birrell as a sorely tried public school housemaster with a splendid amalgam of neurosis, poise and sophisticated sadism. “It’s a Curse to be a Pirate with a Conscience”, a duet with Gerard Carey’s delightfully ineffectual Smee, is the evening’s show-stopper. The all-singing, all-dancing Pirates are the jolliest since the Penzance chapter returned to the House of Lords and Julie-Alanah Brighten (Mrs. Darling) and Gina Beck (Wendy) show that good sense doesn’t have to be boring.
Under Rachel Kavanaugh’s astute and inventive direction, this musical Peter Pan doesn’t relax its grip on youthful attention despite a rather over-long evening – the planned two hours 20 stretched by 25 minutes.