Wendy and Peter Pan at Leeds Playhouse – review
The revival of Ella Hickson's adaptation of the classic tale finally opens after a couple of delays
Wendy and Peter Pan has been singularly ill-starred during the Covid pandemic. Over a long run dating back to the end of November it has suffered two extended closures, involving two Press Nights, owing to infection. It is much to the credit of the cast and production staff that it survives in such robust and spirited form for a final three weeks – hopefully uninterrupted.
It is not, however, one of the Playhouse's most memorable Christmas shows. The Peter Pan story has undergone two major changes from JM Barrie's original. Ella Hickson's version, originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company some ten years ago, foregrounds Wendy, as the title implies. She sets out to find her dead brother Tom (Hickson's addition) in the world of the Lost Boys and she takes as positive a role as any boy. Her rejection of the role of mother is more than welcome, even if the team of girls (Wendy, Tink and Tiger Lily) going to "kick pirates' bum" is a tad trite – no triter, of course, than the gung-ho "Come on, chaps" attitude of Edwardian boy heroes.
Secondly this new production is in association with Bunkamura, a Japanese cultural complex, where it ran during the Tokyo Olympics. Much is gained from the Japanese link, notably the atmospheric music of Shuhei Kamimura (no memorable tunes, but a splendidly theatrical underpinning to the action), but the cartoon style of much of the action can become tiresome. However, the target audience, many decades younger than this reviewer, is probably much happier with so much shouting, screaming and sometimes aimless racing about!
Visually the production works well. Colin Richmond's costume designs – always imaginative, often effective – reflect the script's combination of the Edwardian and the 21st century and his set, with its attractively detailed nursery and a sort of steam punk Neverland, matches the production perfectly. The pirate ship, lanterns swaying at the prow, makes a striking entrance, as do Peter and his gang bursting through the nursery window, and the flying scenes have no lack of magic, even if you can see the harness!
Directors Jonathan Munby and Rupert Hands marshal considerable forces skilfully, with 22 performers including half a dozen "Shadows" offering synchronised balletic support to the action, carrying Peter on his lower-level flights and swimmers escaping the pirate ship.
Amber James projects a winning earnestness (and no little energy) as Wendy, with a sincerity that carries her through the more obviously missionary statements. Otherwise it's difficult for characters to make a mark. The script echoes Wendy's quest for independence in the Darling parents, with Mrs Darling (Amy Rockson) rebelling against her husband's amiably ineffectual selfishness. Ironically, David Birrell, with all his bumbling imperfections, emerges as more human than most: his stylish Captain Hook, the traditional double, could maybe have swashed a few more buckles.
Pierro Niel-Mee flies and leaps to the manner born as Peter Pan and he and Hook are surrounded by comical grotesques who make the most of their moments in the spotlight – too many to mention, but a hard-working and talented ensemble.