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WENDY & PETER PAN Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

NEVERLAND HAS ITS FEMINIST CONSCIOUSNESS RAISED

You can tick off reasons why this is just what the RSC should do.  A fresh commission from a rising playwright, Ella Hickson; an intellectually and morally ambitious reinterpretation of a classic;  a family show for the season with flying and sword-fights, superb sets full of surprises by Colin Richmond, and an internationally respected director , Jonathan Munby.

But you can’t win them all.  And for all its merits this long, sprawling show doesn’t quite jell.  Hickson reframes J.M.Barrie’s tale around Wendy and her mother,  gets rid of Nana the dog and offers themes of family grief and feminism.   Fair enough: Barrie’s elder brother died leaving an inconsolable mother, and it is not hard to trace the idea of the Lost Boys and the consoling myth of a Neverland of boy-fun which nonetheless yearns for a mother.   Also, the Suffragette movement was hot in 1904, so it is playful to challenge the domestic entrapment of Wendy and raise Mrs Darling’s political consciousness in a coda.

It starts in the nursery with a  romping family game .  The boys are not small children but early adolescents, John (Jolyon Coy) a  public-school prefect type and relegating Wendy to being a rescued damsel:  “You must be very very sad, very very impressed and very very grateful”.  It is not Peter Pan who arrives first,  but the consumptive deathbed of brother Tom. The doctor  is Arthur Kyeyune,  who strikingly doubles later as the silent crocodile  in a top-hat and trailing coat reminiscent of a voodoo Baron Samedi. The ticking of his clock is the ticking of time and mortality for us all.

Peter arrives, they all fly on a spectacular circling mobile, and Tinkerbell is a thumping, sarcastic, ginger-haired Waynetta Slob of a fairy with a vast pink tutu and a stroppy EastEnders attitude.  There is a refreshing slanginess to Hickson’s dialogue, with plenty of “Bog off!”  and “Do one!”.  Tiger Lily (a she-macho Michelle Asante)  inculcatesWendy with Girl Power.   But for all the delight of the underground den and the pirate ship,  the whooping boyish larkiness gets tedious, overdone perhaps to contrast with sensible liberated girlhood.  And Peter (Sam Swann) is too hyperactive and coldly inhuman for sympathy. It all sits uncomfortably alongside the mournful preoccupation of Wendy (Fiona Button)  with finding her lost brother.  One minute she’s resisting Captain Hook’s creepy attempts to woo her with a balldress and tiara, the next showing solidarity with Tiger Lily, then back to Barrie whimsy when she finds out (on a flying bed with Peter, hmmm)  that dead brothers become stars twinkling with maternal tears,  and can’t get to Neverland till their families stop grieving.

Interesting themes,  not balanced or woven satisfyingly together. Not a bad family outing, though:  Tinkerbell is a rude delight, and I do appreciate a thoroughly camp Captain Hook  (Guy Henry) suffering from existential doubts and failing to notice that Pirate Smee is in love with him and hopefully collecting colour swatches for their cottage together.  Very modern.

box office  0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk    to 2 March

rating:  three 3 Meece Rating

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