Wendy and Peter
Review by Michael Billington, Guardian, Dec. 2013
Ella Hickson, who has written this radical revision of JM Barrie's mythical story, has said she is alarmed at the idea of elderly men protesting at the mauling of a masterpiece. But it's perfectly possible to admire Hickson's witty inventiveness – and the magical spectacle of Jonathan Munby's excellent RSC production – and still feel there has been loss as well as gain.
Hickson, who has gone back to the 1911 novel Barrie based on his play, is clear in her intentions: to put Wendy at the centre of the story. What we get, in fact, is a quest in which Wendy flies off to Neverland with her two siblings in search of her "lost" brother, Tom. Peter Pan becomes her fancied escort but, once in Neverland, even he can't protect her from assaults from her female rivals: the fairy Tink – a chubbily aggressive Cockney – and Tiger Lily, a purposefully surly hoodie. But, without giving too much away, it's fair to say that the three girls eventually bond and become infinitely more effective than Peter in defeating Captain Hook.
Hickson's version is all about female growth and empowerment. To reinforce the point, Wendy's mum, Mrs Darling, briefly deserts her Ibsenite Doll's House and joins the suffragettes. But, much as I applaud the message, Hickson's play is cheerfully affirmative where Barrie's story is tantalisingly unresolved: you're never sure, in the original, whether to envy Peter's arrested childhood or view him as a tragic figure. Hickson also diminishes Captain Hook. Where Barrie gave us a melodramatic villain full of bombast, Hickson turns Hook into a faintly pathetic pirate yearning to possess Peter's immortality. Guy Henry plays the part with a nice languid elegance, but I felt Wendy deserved a more terrifying opponent.
Whatever my cavils, the production is a constant joy to behold in Colin Richmond's imaginative design, and I'm in awe of the vertigo-defying actors who fly off into space without a blink of fear. Fiona Button's Wendy is everything the script demands: resolute, perky, courageous and visibly older and wiser by the end. Sam Swann's Peter is inescapably less potent but, accompanied by six shadows who look like a boy ballet troupe, he cuts quite a dash. Rebecca Johnson and Andrew Woodall as the Darling parents effectively add an air of marital tension to the mix, and Charlotte Mills's Tink and Michelle Asante's Tiger Lily are rumbustious company in Neverland. A family audience seemed to be having a whale of a time, so it doesn't matter a jot if I pined for more pathos.