Considering it seems to have every element that makes a fairy story appeal to me, I've never been that fussed about Peter Pan
. Maybe it's the fact that most treatments of the story seem to be so anodyne and twee, without the darkness that you'd have thought was so central to it. I think it's the clapping to bring Tinkerbell back to life that puts the nail into the coffin. The National Theatre of Scotland production currently at the Barbican as part of a tour promised to bring back a lot of that darkness, but the clincher for me was that the play has been rewritten by Midsummer
author David Greig, and I was interested to see how he'd approach what the publicity said would be a particularly Scottish version of the story.
Greig and director John Tiffany's conceit is to move the action to Victorian Edinburgh, at the time of the building of the Forth Bridge. Laura Hopkins' set is dominated by sections of the not-yet-completed bridge, which later revolve to become the trees and pirate ships of Neverland. Both still in drama school, Kevin Guthrie and Kirsty Mackay as Peter and Wendy carry the piece with apparent ease, Guthrie spending most of his time attached to his flying rig. I did get another clue as to why this was never a favourite of mine as once they get to Neverland the story is pretty much just a constant back-and-forth as various good guys get kidnapped by the pirates then rescued, but that's an issue I have with the story rather than the production. I thought Greig and Tiffany successfully kept things going, and Guthrie is definitely one to watch. Yes, yes OK, obviously my mind may have wandered into not-entirely-kids'-story territory but since I was once described as being guaranteed to fancy "pixie people," anyone who can play Peter Pan is likely to float my boat. And Guthrie absolutely looks the part.
Having said that, this audience member wasn't the only person having "thoughts," because Greig plays up the sexual attraction between Peter and Wendy, which Peter avoids as it represents the terrible fate of growing up that he associates with bad memories of his drunken father. As for the dark side, this is a production where you can't deny the story's fixation with death - Peter wants to, and does, live forever, but his fairytale existence results in him forgetting so much (in the heartbreaking coda he has a new nemesis and can't even remember who Captain Hook was) that he seems to be dying constantly. Visually it's a strikingly dark production as well, literally in the case of Guy Hoare's moody lighting design full of shadows. Peter's bare torso is covered in livid scars, while Cal MacAninch's feral Captain Hook wears a black kilt and is covered in tattoos. He's also shirtless which results in the famous hook not peeking out from a sleeve but ending in a dirty bandage, an image I found particularly striking. The Scottishness of the piece is most clearly heard in the atmospheric music, both from composer Davey Anderson and in the various traditional songs interspersed throughout the play.
There were very few actual kids at tonight's performance but I can imagine they'd love the acrobatics, excitement and gore (at one point Peter brings the Lost Boys a gift of a decapitated head) while for the adults there's the melancholy and inventiveness of the storytelling. As good a telling of the story as I can imagine, and with the exception of a couple of performances in smaller roles, nothing of the panto about it. And hurray, no clapping to bring Tink back to life. In fact, no actress playing her, instead Tinkerbell is a ball of fire that dances on wires and in the actors' hands. A clever effect, although overshadowed by the play's very final moment that features a genuinely WTF piece of stage magic by illusion designer Jamie Harrison, in which Mackay appears to literally be in two places at once.Peter Pan
by J M Barrie in a version by David Greig is booking until the 29th of May at the Barbican Theatre, then continues on tour.