Wendy and Peter Pan, as adapted by Ella Hickson, was first staged at the RSC in 2013 with great success. This new production is similar in an awful lot of ways, especially the design, but it's been tweaked and refined to fully bring out the characters. J M Barrie's story is a long way from the Disneyfied veneer of fairy dust: Hickson brings this out with stark brushstrokes and dark themes. Wendy only travels to Neverland in search of her 'lost' brother, who dies in the first scene; Hook is beset by fears of age while Peter is heartbreakingly torn between his youth and growing up. At its core, the show is surprisingly complex and moving, and while snagged on the idea of being a pantomime it parodies that fact, filling itself out as a supremely magical show.
In the past the show has been criticised for being imbalanced, not being fully aware of its direction, either towards adults or children. I felt the writing didn't really reflect this – and the production was so enchanting that it was impossible not to enjoy – but the acting was generally pointed towards a pantomime hamminess. The actors were having fun but those playing children left their characters slightly forced and fake. Darrell d'Silva played a gleefully menacing Hook, and Rebecca Johnson and Patrick Toomey as the Darlings' parents were agonisingly worked by their son's death. Equally, Mariah Gale as Wendy and Rhys Rusbatch as Peter excelled in their deeper scenes – Rusbatch's tightly strained demeanour following Wendy's capture was crushing – but a large part of the ensemble were clearly wrestling as much with trying to be children as their characters. To their credit, the whole cast had a boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm that swept the audience along.
Peter Pan is such a ubiquitous fairytale that no retelling could avoid slapdash glitter and sparkles.
Peter Pan is such a ubiquitous fairytale that no retelling could avoid slapdash glitter and sparkles. But, as with every other aspect of this production's design, beauty and charm have created an ethereal, dream-like Neverland. Tinkerbell, when small, zapped as a twinkle between actors' hands and into objects, fantastically, and was convincingly choreographed. Fireflies and 'skylights' bobbed around and floated through the audience; Peter's appearance in a flash of lightning was stunning; sudden changes in lighting were chilling and uncomfortable, or warm and inviting. The direction and effects team had a monumental task with staging such an impressive show, but the result was astounding.
The stage at the RSC has been set up with loads of high-tech gear that gets used a lot, but Wendy still managed to find incredibly exciting and innovative ways of using the space. The set was constantly changing and malleable without escaping towards minimalism. The mandatory flying scenes suspended the actors from an oversized mobile and Captain Hook's ship lumbered about the stage menacingly, but most impressive was the lost boys' home 'under the ground'. After the boys escaped through trapdoors in the stage, the entire floor lifted backwards to reveal their hideout. The space was transformed by the incredible, intricate structure; the theatre was filled with warmth and excitement, eyes being drawn everywhere by the elaborate pinboard. The steaming bath, the piles of collected junk, Tinkerbell's headily elevated bunk bed, all reflected the chaotic, madcap energy of the boys.
Finding the space to cram more spellbinding appeal in, the use of dance pervades the graceful shimmer of the show. The crocodile, played by the impossibly lithe Arthur Kyeyune, glided around the stage, an inexorable ever-present reminder of death. Peter's team of shadows acted partly as 'invisible' stage-hands, but their background movements created a rippling and rich visual texture, sometimes perfectly aligned with Peter's gestures, at other times chaotic and dispersed. The score, miraculously generated from a very sparse band, pushed harder than most incidental music, winding its way into many scenes and illuminating the characters and their emotions. To break into the diegesis by blending with Peter's harmonica and the boys' and pirates' merriment was captivating, making the score light-hearted and accessible.
Christmas shows are so often saccharine and saturated, and while being a fun tradition can easily grate. The RSC's Wendy and Peter Pan is a triumphant reappraisal of what a fun, magical production can mean. The design and direction is immaculate, exciting and vibrant. This is a production you should really go and see.