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Review Round-up: Did Peter Fly or Get Panned?

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Peter, Wendy, Tinkerbell and Captain Hook came home to the location that inspired their creation – Kensington Gardens – in a new version of JM Barrie's 1904 classic Peter Pan that opened to the press on Wednesday (10 June 2009, previews from 26 May) in a custom-built 1,100-seat tent.

The new version, adapted by Tanya Ronder, is designed by CGI specialist William Dudley, who makes extensive use of video projection to give the famous flight to Neverland a wholly 21st-century spin. Former Almeida associate director and site-specific specialist Ben Harrison directs a cast led by Ciaran Kellgren and Abby Ford as Peter and Wendy, Jonathan Hyde as Captain Hook and Spaniard Itxaso Moreno as Tinkerbell.

Critical opinion varied. Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney was among the production's strongest supporters, proclaiming Dudley's designs “thrilling” and Kellgren and Ford “as strong a Peter and Wendy as any in living memory”. Others weren't so impressed, notably the Guardian's Michael Billington who labelled it a “charmless spectacular extravaganza” and accused adaptor Ronder of transforming Tinkerbell into a “puckish scruff in a fluffy tutu”. But in general his colleagues seemed to enjoy themselves, with the elaborate stage effects predictably stealing the show.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “It’s a stunning design by William Dudley, his most successful yet in this field of environmental CGI … The flight of the children across London, past Nelson’s Column, St Paul’s and shooting through Tower Bridge is a thrilling experience, and all the more so for having a theatrical dimension in the cinematic. But perhaps even more extraordinary is the projection of the rippling lagoon, complete with sandy beaches and palm trees around the pirate ship, the stage as the deck and the poop, with a virtual prow that is reproduced in real scenery for Peter’s duel with Captain Hook … The imagery never distracts attention from the actors. And in Ciaran Kellgren and Abby Ford, we have as strong a Peter and Wendy as any in living memory … Nor has there been a better recent Hook than Jonathan Hyde’s magniloquent, strutting grandee.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “The plot is pretty much as Barrie wanted it, but the dialogue has been so rejigged by Tanya Ronder, you are startled when an authentic line surfaces, like Pan’s 'to die will be an awfully big adventure …Ciaran Kellgren makes a tough, cool Pan who nimbly skims and gambols, then bangs and stamps in angry defiance of grown-ups. And Jonathan Hyde’s Hook is a debonair dandy who casually murders an underling, yet mostly substitutes melancholy for menace, lying in his hammock and wailing out his night fears and pirate miseries. But for better or worse, or both, it is the stage effects I’ll remember. These include rough-theatre stuff - the dog Nana is shunted about by a puppeteer and a canvas-and-wicker crocodile is moved by two cyclists half-hidden within - but also plenty of digital wizardry. Best of all is an underwater scene, with an acrobatic mermaid twisting up and down on a rope. Is it ungrateful, then, to say I’d have liked a bit more Barrie and a bit less spectacle? Probably.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) - “It seems logical to stage Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, where JM Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies family and spun yarns about the boy who never grew up. But this new production, mounted in an 1,100-seat pavilion, is far removed, not even mentioning Barrie on the title page, while transforming his enduring and troubling myth into a charmless spectacular extravaganza … Uniquely, in my experience, this is a Peter Pan that never moves one emotionally. The genius of Barrie's play is that it leaves one undecided whether to admire its hero's defiance of maturity or to pine for his exclusion from familial life. But, in adapting Barrie's original, Tanya Ronder has deprived Peter of his pathos and made numerous odd changes. She turns Tinkerbell from a spritely light into a puckish scruff in a fluffy tutu. Hook and the pirates also become as much deprived mother-lovers as the lost boys. We even get dubious double entendres.”

  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “For too long now, Peter Pan has been siphoned off into the strange theatrical neverland of pantomime … Here, though, it’s come home … This swanky 1,000-seater rainproof big top provides an appealing in-the-round setting … Thus when it comes to the all-important flying; we can follow the soaring Wendy, John and Michael over London rooftops and through an Edwardian cityscape … On the ground, however … adaptor Tanya Ronder can’t surmount Pan’s persistent problem of strong opening and closing scenes supporting a lot of amorphous Neverland narrative, leavened only by Jonathan Hyde’s nicely droll Captain Hook … Ciaran Kellgren gives Peter real grace, and Abby Ford’s Wendy takes to her newly permitted task of bossing the boys about with gusto. Tinkerbell (Itxaso Moreno) is no longer a dart of light but a grubby, scowling creature in a dirty pink tutu, who is nonetheless skilled in the aerial sequences. It’s without doubt an accomplished evening but an extra fairy dust sprinkling of charm over Barrie’s old stamping ground wouldn’t hurt.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (two stars) – “This new Peter Pan has everything – except a soul. Staged in a hi-tech big-top seating almost 1,200 people, it seems to be less the story of the little boy who wouldn't grow up, and more the tale of the designer who wanted the biggest CGI computer game in the world. For many years now, William Dudley has been mixing live stage action with film effects ... It doesn't always work ... In Peter Pan, however ... the effect is often spectacular ... It feels, thrillingly, as if we are flying with them. Yet though this is a Peter Pan that often made me gasp, it never moved me to tears – and a production of JM Barrie's strange and haunting drama that doesn't make you cry must be counted a failure. We get the spectacle, certainly, and some more than passable performances. What's missing is the poignant sense of transience and loss that makes this play a masterpiece rather than a mere entertainment for the kiddies ... Too much that is disconcerting and special about Peter Pan is absent from this production, and we are left with little more than a parade of special effects.”
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