Review: Peter Pan (Birmingham Rep)

The fairy tale is reimagined by Liam Steel and Georgia Christou this Christmas

Hook (Nia Gwynne) and the Pirates in Peter Pan at Birmingham Rep Theatre
Hook (Nia Gwynne) and the Pirates in Peter Pan at Birmingham Rep Theatre
© Johan Persson

Birmingham Repertory Theatre's Christmas show takes J M Barrie's classic story of the boy who never wants to grow up and pulls it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. This reimagined Peter Pan focusses on an unhappy Wendy in a foster home on a Birmingham housing estate, unwilling to love or be loved. Distrustful of adults, she's taken on a carer role for her two brothers Michael and John and has lost the ability to be a child. So when Peter Pan turns up, taking the trio to Neverland, Wendy discovers not only a new world but also a new sense of her own identity.

This Peter Pan is directed by Liam Steel, who was behind last year's hugely successful Birmingham Rep adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, and he has applied the same spirit of creativity and exploration to this production. Gone are the fantastical elements of the usual well-known show – instead we are looking at gritty housing estates where the Lost Ones live in a converted sewer underneath a graffiti-covered skateboard park and the pirates look like characters out of a Mad Max film.

Adapted by Steel and Georgia Christou, the show is packed with contemporary themes including gender equality, the loss of youth and the importance of a mother to a lost child. But while these are clearly weighty subjects, they are presented in a production with plenty of humour, some great special effects and even some rap numbers.

At its heart, Cora Tsang plays Wendy as torn between a reluctance to trust anyone and a desire to be loved. We first meet her arguing with the police, the caretaker of her building and then her foster mother – this is one unhappy youngster. But through her adventures, Tsang's Wendy learns to trust others and to make herself not only vulnerable but also open to affection.

Lawrence Walker is a likeable Peter, refusing to grow up and yet also hankering after a home and a family of his own. A gender-swapped Hook is played by Nia Gwynne, who also takes the part of the children's foster mother Jess, creating a parallel between Wendy's two worlds. This Hook is part-pantomime, part-poet and even part-philosopher, but in true Peter Pan tradition she is also afraid of the crocodile who took her arm.

Tinkerbell is anything but an adorable fairy – instead Mirabelle Gremaud brings us a platinum-bobbed Tink dressed top-to-toe in silver glitter who stomps around the stage muttering indecipherably and very angrily – particularly when Wendy is around.

Michael Pavelka's sets are ambitious and ingenious, soaring into the skies, below the waves, under the streets, into the home and aboard the ship. There's a recurrent theme of grunginess to both the sets and Laura Jane Stanfield's outlandish costumes, as Stanfield dresses the children and the pirates in a blend of street and punk – just a little bit zany.

The clue to this ultra-modern version of Peter Pan is in the "reimagined" – any audience members expecting a traditional story will be rudely awakened. And in giving a new take on the classic story, Steel succeeds in bringing lots of fresh ideas to the tale while also wrapping them up in a thoroughly enjoyable family show.