Peter Pan (Open Air Theatre)
Opening the Regent's Park Open Air season this Summer is a new take on Peter Pan directed by artistic director Timothy Sheader with Liam Steel. Usually seen at Christmas with a dubious celebrity Hook, Pan is a staple of the pantomime circuit. This production however uses the original stage play, and as such brings to the fore the complexities of a story in which both "to die" and "to live" would be an "awfully big adventure".
The whole production, which opens in a World War I field hospital and includes the arrival of a man on a stretcher with an abdominal wound, ensures that we're never far from the milieu of the 100 year-old conflict. Jon Bausor's impressive set sees the front of the stage lined with the corrugated sheet metal of the trenches while the cherry blossoms in Neverland are scrim-netting dyed pink. The puppets – ingeniously designed by Rachael Canning – are all made from items you might find on the battlefield.
Sheader and Steel should be applauded for their commitment to the theme and often it works beautifully – when Peter looks for his shadow it's tommies he chases about the room, while much of the flying in the Darling bedroom or swimming in the lagoon is on the shoulders of soldiers. It can however feel laboured – it is writhing soldiers who represent the rising waters on Skull Rock and soldiers again appear through the floor boards during the building of the Wendy House, guns pointed at the audience.
When we are in the story proper it's a fantastic ride and the cast do a wonderful job – Hiran Abeysekera as the mischevious Peter Pan seems made for the air while the Lost Boys are a fantastically rag-tag bunch often standing on top of each other in the way of young boys. I particularly enjoyed Thomas Pickles' Slightly, whose squeal at the promise of a story made me laugh out loud. The pirates are entertainingly inept, with a particular nod to Beverly Rudd's Smee, and witty costumes by Jon Morrell ensure a rather diverse group of pirates – we've a Samuri and Viking.
Overall it's an enjoyable evening in a beautiful setting, even if Sheader and Steel, in driving home their analogy of war as loss of innocence, somewhat dilute rather than distill the magic of Barrie's piece. That being said, I won't deny that I was crying at the end.
Peter Pan runs until 14 June 2015