You fly to Neverland to be free from growing up, and buy a ticket to Peter Pan to regress into childhood. But to grow up and old is a privilege, one so easily and frequently denied. This is the perspective that directors Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel take on the tale, which distinguishes their Neverland from a plethora of others. Their vision draws heavily on Barrie’s own biography, and the fate of his ward, George. Barrie adopted George, Jack, and Peter Llewelyn Davies after the death of their own parents. He regaled them with fairy tales and magic tricks, and their own play and storytelling helped create Peter Pan. The boys grew out of the nursery and into the war. The eldest, George, was shot dead by a sniper near Ypres. This Peter Pan is haunted by George’s loss of adulthood.
The set designer, Jon Bausor, does a remarkable job of realising the undertones to this Peter Pan. His set allows the audience to see both Neverland and the Western Front simultaneously. The stage looks like the best den you could have ever built or found as a child; it is a massive wooden structure, with all kinds of ingenious, secret features which are revealed to great effect. Every aspect of the open air setting is used – the lost boys pop out through bushes, down from trees, up from underground, and have hiding places in every possible direction. The audience watch them play in this ultimate escape, and long to join in.
Yet, the very same stage bears a striking resemblance to the WWI trenches. Trenches are, after all, outdoor dens built under the worst possible conditions. Therefore, as we watch the lost boys play in Neverland, we cannot escape the sight of war. Every part of the set, every prop, is something you could find both in Neverland and in a war zone. This is most effectively illustrated in the ingenious construction of Tinkerbell and Hook’s crocodile. The constant, imaginative doubling between play and war gives the production its emotional weight.
A cast can easily be swallowed by such a remarkable set, but the actors playing the lost boys do so with an enthusiasm and collective energy. You forget these men have already grown up. Wendy (Kae Alexander) is played as a girl with a lot of love to give, searching for somewhere to put it. Hiran Abeysekera creates a Peter of impish cheekiness. But the unsung heroes of this production are its Greek chorus of young men, dressed in soldier’s uniforms. It is they who provide the constant human reminder of the WWI context. They sit by the audience at the beginning of the story, like soldiers waiting in the trenches. Their bodies perform the rising water around Neverland’s Skull Rock, as they move together like the floating dead of a sunken war ship. They make elaborate changes to the set, carrying us between locations without distraction. Most importantly, they make the production’s breath-taking flying sequences possible. This hard-working chorus is comprised of students from East 15 acting school.
This Peter Pan provides both adults and children with something to wonder over. It serves those who pine for the imaginative escapism of Neverland, and those who like playful subject matter to be tinged with serious social commentary. It is an impressive start to Regent Park’s Open Air season. The diverse offerings of The Seagull, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Lord of the Flies are to follow. To Kill A Mockingbird, which previously had two sell-out seasons at the Open Air Theatre, will be re-staged at the Barbican. It will be fascinating to see how the potential of this outdoor space is re-imagined for each production.