Friday 7th January 2022 at Leeds Playhouse
Ella Hickson’s adaptation of the J. M. Barrie classic places Wendy Darling more centrally but keeps a firm focus on Peter Pan too, doing well to strike a balance which does enough to please both established fans and newbies to this adventure. This production from directors Jonathan Munby and Rupert Hands is a generous one in many ways, offering plenty of fun and spectacle to enjoy but also some moving undertones and important messages about embracing some of life’s biggest challenges.
In brief, when one of the four Darling children disappears in the night, Wendy is determined to find him. With the forever-child Peter Pan leading the way, the Darlings head to Neverland to face Lost Boys, angry pirates and the antics of a particularly resentful fairy…
Amber James delivers both the gritty determination and the sensitivity of this revised Wendy Darling, carrying with her the troubled maturity of the original but with a distinctly modern sense of self. This is a Wendy who isn’t afraid to challenge expectations or stand her ground amongst the boys while also maintaining some distance from that “good little girl” box. Hickson also entertainingly creates something of a reluctant gang of “girls who kick pirate bum” as Wendy is joined by the fearless Tiger Lily – played by a charismatic Ami Okumura Jones – and a delightfully non-conforming Tink, played with great comic flair by Hope Kenna in a performance which beautifully undercuts all expectations of fairies as beaming and sugar-coated delights.
As for Peter Pan? Pierro Neil-Mee is great- agile and mischievous with just the right amount of repressed angst as Pan resists the perils of growing up and returning to reality. David Birrell’s Hook is a worthy adversary too; somewhere between risible panto villain and intimidating force for ill – with hints at his own repressed unhappiness for good measure. We all love a conflicted villain after all… How long do we have to wait for Hook’s Wicked, I wonder? And as antidote to Hook’s mean shenanigans, Richard Leeming’s awkward Slightly, James Steventon’s numbskull Curly and Brian Lonsdale’s misunderstood and amorous Smee provide some cracking comic relief.
Impressive set design from Colin Richmond includes a grand ship reveal and canny illusions of layers which conjure various spaces while also facilitating projections to take us across land and sea (Video designer: Taiki Ueda). Further spectacle – or rather the central spectacle – is of course seeing the children, Pan and Tink take to the air and this production seamlessly utilises both manual elevation via an ensemble of “Shadows” and wire harnesses (Flying director: Matt Davis) to deliver the magic of flying with smooth transitions. Another defining feature of this action-packed adventure is the generosity of fight sequences (Terry King) which provide plenty of action but could perhaps be slimmed down in favour of other material. I’d have liked to see more time overall spent with Wendy in the light of Hickson’s approach – it makes sense to give time and attention to Pan and the events of the original, but some brave departure to explore the overlooked Wendy a little more would have been welcome…
As a show for the festive season, Wendy and Peter Pan offers all the family-friendly fun and spectacle you’d expect. As an adaptation, it does well to balance the best of the original with some welcome evolution of characters deserving of more attention than Barrie afforded them. Here’s to more spotlights finding their way to quiet characters deserving of a louder voice!
Wendy and Peter Pan plays Leeds Playhouse until January 22nd 2022 and you can find tickets here.