There’s one thing you can expect from the National Theater: if they’re going to do a show, you can trust they’re going to do it right. No “empty space,” no actors all dressed in black because there’s no costume budget: you’re looking at the full meal deal. So when the Theatre Bloggers offered me a chance to go, I was eager. I’d seen a few versions of this book, most recently the side-splitting Peter Pan Goes Wrong, I jumped at the chance to see this show.
Notice, though that while the National tends to go for explicit realism, but can balance that out with “less” rather than “more.” Peter Pan, as performed by The Companies, is decidedly of the “less” aesthetic; rich costumes in front of a nearly empty stage; visible stagehands slipping up and down scaffolding to very visibly make actors “fly” countered with a fully drivable steampunk pirate boat; a crocodile that on one hand looks to be made of tin cans but then seems to leap ten feet into the hair. The air is that of something that is low tech and made up, but no undersupported production get as much as the wig budget must have been for this show. It’s faux poor.
The story itself is so rich that it’s hard to figure out how to approach it, because we have FLYING and PIRATES and FAIRIES. But the text is also troublesome, because it has, um, native Americans and, er, lots of children dying (if you’ve actually bothered to read it it’s not just Tinkerbell who dies, and let’s not mention the extremely bloody fates of the pirates). The script needs a bit of amendment, and with the cast members participating in the writing, we’ve wound up with a lot of free translations that help keep the story up to date with modern sensibilities. Our Captain is a woman, and Tink is played by a man; Tiger Lily’s tribe is gone and she’s morphed into some kind of modern day Princess Mononoke complete with wolves. And the sensitivities of the modern British audience are tenderly coddled by a near entire elimination of death from the script, except for the Tink’s heavily softened passing and of course the dramatic end of our Pirate Queen. I think we managed to frighten some audience members when Tink briefly stopped moving; fortunately Hook’s end was so dramatic it was hard to find it upsetting but rather an act of fantastic bravery. I’m sure anyone else who’s wound up inside a crocodile was far less sanguine (and more ensanguine) than Anna Francolini when she took her swan dive. Still, what an image for little girls to go home with: the wonderful, fierce, brave, New Rocks wearing Gothic pirate queen. I’d be asking for boat to play on in my back yard, no doubt about it.
But: the show. There are points to hit in the script, are there not? And the company seems to move between them with some sort of forward motion, but a lack of clear purpose; we have the bedroom, the parents, the woeful dog, Peter Pan, some business with a shadow, flying, Rasta Lost Boys, Wendy as Mummy, and so forth. And, because there are children in the audience, there are songs, none of which are particularly memorable. I mean, there are some really interesting points to be made, and some strong characters, and all of the World War One overhead lurking beneath the surface, and just really so much you can do …. but there are children to entertain but not overwhelm, and since this is devised there’s no actual author trying to make a grand vision come together but instead (perhaps) an attempt to recreate the great success of the Jane Eyre this same company did just last year. In that case, the formula worked … in this case, the sum was less that the whole of the parts, and I found myself, despite my love for this story, trying not to nod off before the interval. Alas.
(This review is of the opening night performance, which took place December 2nd, 2016. It continues until February 4.)