Monday, 17 May 2010

Review: Peter Pan, Barbican

After Disney's bowdlerisation and years of pantomimes, it's easy to forget just how dark and weirdly sexual J. M. Barrie's original tale is. John Tiffany's production of David Grieg's adaptation works hard to restore some of the uncertainty and danger, although the real threat of awakening pubescent sexuality is still largely absent.

Transported from Edwardian Kensington to Victorian Edinburgh, the play opens on the Forth Rail Bridge. A small army of 'rivet boys' scramble over the structure and help in its construction, a real world counterpart to the Lost Boys of Neverland. The bridge is a not only a gateway to the Kingdom of Fife, but to Neverland, where the flipside of Laura Hopkins' beautiful set suggests tree branches, rigging, shipwrecked masts.

The parallels between the real and the imaginary are also reflected in doubling with Jaqui Zvimba and Zöe Hunter playing both Nana and Tiger Lilly. As the Darlings' canine nanny, Zvimba and Hunter operate a model dog while dressed as household servants. I liked the idea of the puppetry better than its execution, which was a little crude, but Zvimba and Hunter made an engaging pair to watch as the maligned Nana. As the dual Tiger Lily (Lillies?) however, the move from St Bernard to wolf princess proved a step too far, and the lupine antics didn't add much to the production.

As is also often done, Mr Darling becomes Captain Hook, but it is here that the production starts to get some teeth. No longer an unthreatening fop, Captain Hook, tattooed and kilted in black, is imbued with real menace by Cal MacAninch. He delivers Hook's humorous lines with the same venom as he slits throats and makes this hardened pirate becomes a believable nemesis to Peter Pan's youthful energy.

But what of Peter Pan? Similarly bare-chested and with tufted hair to suggest his faun god namesake, Kevin Guthrie is muscular yet boyish, able to change from carefree sprite to bitter cynic and back again in the blink of an eye. His entrance crawling downward along the pros arch instantly eradicates all thoughts of green tights and feathered caps and the aerial work and fight scenes are brilliantly choreographed. But for all the macho swaggering, this is a production that wants to have its cake and eat too - a physically attractive Peter Pan who provokes no sexual tension in Wendy Darling. This is not a criticism of Guthrie, who puts in a performance that far belies his years, or of Kirsty Mackay, who gives Wendy a refreshing kick up the backside and creates a gutsy proto-feminist who doesn't understand why people think girls can't fight. Instead, I think the problem lies with the director.

Like an awkward parent unwilling to have 'the talk', or at the very least, like a director not wanting to put the parents in the audience in that position, John Tiffany seems to have consciously directed the play to avoid any hint of physical attraction between Peter and Wendy. All talk of thimbles and kisses is excised from the Darling's nursery to be replaced by talk of Peter forbidding Wendy from ever touching him. Wendy, and the audience, are very firmly put in place from asking further questions.

This also occurs with the treatment of Tinkerbell. A large part of the tragedy of the story revolves around her unrequited love of Peter, and the murderous jealousy this provokes in her negligee-clad heart (read the original and you'll find it there). While undeniably beautiful, I'm not sure how well the fiery fairy worked as a literal flame. Quite how you would create a realistic pint-sized fairy femme fatale on stage is quite another matter, but I can't help thinking that a version that portrayed Tinkerbell as an aspect of Wendy's attraction to Peter would make for fascinating watching.

This rather Freudian interpretation of mine brings me rather neatly to Mrs Darling. Annie Grace is the real delight of the evening, operating not only as a fine actor but also singing the haunting 'Mother's Lament'. Kudos must be given to Davey Anderson and his brilliant music, incorporating sea shanties and Celtic lullabies that at once seemed familiar and fantastical. Indeed, Mrs Darling's initial recognition of Peter and subsequent reappearances in Neverland have a greater sense of longing than any of the scenes between Peter and Wendy, hinting at but never addressing the story's Oedipal undertones.

Uncertain of its audience then, this is a production which teeters on the cusp of childhood and adulthood but which never fully satisfies either. Not unlike Peter Pan himself

With the Facebook offer we posted last week, seats in the stalls that were normally £30 were made available for £6. One suspects that the show wasn't selling quite as well as the Barbican had hoped, but I was more than happy to take advantage of this and bring my other half.

Being in the stalls however, it was difficult not to get distracted by the corresponding ropework in the wings. I suspect that a seat further back, or even in the circle, might allow you to focus less on the strings attached and more on the bigger picture.


£9.50. Which isn't a bad night out at all. And which entirely justified us going to Pham Sushi before hand and devouring their menu (thoroughly recommend this as a pre-Barbican restaurant - best sushi in London).

Peter Pan plays at the Barbican until 29 May. Tickets £10-35. Visit or call 020 7638 8891 for more information.

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