Setting the 1904 play Peter Pan in a First World War military hospital in France both defines this production and redefines the play. A prologue establishes the setting, the trauma of which is laid bare as wounded soldiers are brought in from the trenches. A nurse (Wendy) discovers one of them has a copy of Peter Pan and begins to read from it. Only at this point does the familiar story begin. And despite the bleak setting, all the well-known elements are there – although Nana the dog only gets a name-check but doesn’t appear.
Wendy’s narrative soon takes flight and the story unfolds pretty conventionally in terms of the plot, story and character. But the setting and the presence of soldiers in the trenches that surround the stage brings us back to the war at every turn. Mrs Darling has lost her children to Never Land where they face unknown perils, just as countless other mothers have lost their children to the fields of war. Not all will return and those that do will be changed by their experiences.
For sheer theatrical inventiveness this show takes some beating. A house for Wendy is quickly assembled from apparently arbitrary items of junk lying around. Hospital beds transform by turns into a poppy field, the interior walls of a house and Skull Island. Tinkerbell and the infamous crocodile are two highlights, the former being a hand-held puppet based around a hurricane lamp and prone to robust expressions of her feelings to Wendy, who she sees her as a threat to her friendship with Peter.
Then, of course, there’s the flying. There are no delicate invisible wires here. Peter and the Darling children zoom about the vast space afforded by the open air venue on sturdy ropes with bungee chords giving extra bounce – whilst other members of the cast operate their aerobatics by acting as counter-weights on the other end of the ropes. The effect is exhilarating.
Some may find the First World War parallels are laid on somewhat heavily and that the messages about that war in particular have been well-trodden theatrically, not least in Oh What a Lovely War! which also, like this show, takes a popular entertainment and songs of the era and turns them into a social commentary. But the overall effect is to provide a context for the play which gives it depth and resonance to an audience comprised largely of children who did grow up.
Thanks to http://www.londonboxoffice.co.uk for the opportunity to see this production which is at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park until 15 June. By the way, a tip for any first timers at the venue – take a blanket!