Wendy and Peter Pan (RST, Stratford-upon-Avon)
Ella Hickson's re-telling of JM Barrie's classic returns to the RST for the Christmas season
Whether it's sensible economics or the simple desire to revisit a successful experience, the return of Wendy and Peter Pan to the main stage at Stratford is a thing to celebrate.
Ella Hickson's retelling of JM Barrie's classic children's story is as fresh and vigorous as it was when the RSC first unwrapped it two Christmasses ago. It has since undergone some structural work and tightening up - to its considerable advantage - but it makes no difference if you're watching it as a repeat or coming to it anew. It's a joyful, exuberant riot of fun, colour and silliness.
A few of the cast from the original staging remain, including a wonderfully gobby Tink in the shape of Charlotte Mills, but director Jonathan Munby allows his newcomers full rein to explore their characters, and the result is endlessly entertaining for audiences aged from really quite small to... well, at least as old as me.
RSC associate artists have been brought in for two of the main roles - Wendy herself and the cheerily miserable Captain Hook - and they're safe hands indeed. Mariah Gale captures just the right combination of girlish innocence and maturing sensibilities as the senior sibling torn between her childhood and her Edwardian duties. Her look of wide-eyed awe is as effective as any fairydust at conjuring the magic of Neverland.
Darrell D'Silva, meanwhile, looks resplendently fed up with his lot as the churlish, jaded pirate captain. His crew are a ragbag assortment of misfits, with a delightfully lovelorn Smee (Paul Kemp) almost literally hanging on his captain's coattails, and they make a fine counterbalance to the feral Lost Boys led by Rhys Rusbatch's comically Welsh Peter Pan.
Rusbatch strikes a confident tone in the role and has a cheeky twinkle in his eye, but his growing confusion about his feelings for Wendy is perfectly pitched. Their scenes together are touching and believable and carry much of the emotional weight of the show. Between them, they invest Hickson's invented subplot about the death of a younger Darling brother, Tom, with real humanity, making it more than an authorial device simply to deepen Wendy's character.
The extraordinary set by Colin Richmond once again steals the production. Whether the characters are flying, swimming, hiding underground or walking the plank, his designs serve the action superbly, thrilling the audience with their ingenuity and inventiveness and turning the RST into a treasure chest of possibilities.
Olly Fox's stirring score and Oliver Fenwick's imaginative lighting add extra doses of atmosphere, and the frenetic energy of the cast is infectious. It may get a little shouty at times, and Munby's pacing occasionally feels a little uneven, but there's plenty here to entertain the whole family throughout the festive season and beyond.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes
Wendy and Peter Pan runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 31 January 2016.