Failing To Take Flight

By Georgina Brown

Such is the richness of J M Barrie’s 1904 classic that directors can do almost anything with it – from putting a leggy actress into pixie boots to constructing a Freudian fantasy about men who reject family life – and it endures. Or so I thought. Alas, Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel’s well-staged take is something of a narrative muddle, and Barrie’s piercing and profound meditation on motherhood gets lost in playful panto. Does it matter? Perhaps not for those who didn’t know what they were missing – Nana the dog, Mr and Mrs Darling going out to dinner and leaving the nursery window open with perilous consequences, the poignancy of an emotionally damaged child who doesn’t want to grow up. Better then to engage with this show on its own imaginative terms.

For instead of the Darlings’ Kensington residence, we are in a bombed-out field hospital near the Somme during the First World War, where a jolly matron is very happy to light the cigarette for the officer-patient whose missing arm is now a hook. Wendy is a no-nonsense northern nurse reading Peter Pan to wounded soldiers, among them the Darling boys, John and Michael. She represents the mother they all long for. Barrie’s Lost Boys have been imagined as the lost generation of young men in the First World War. But reality melts into escapist fantasy as the patients fly to Neverland with Peter Pan, no longer dying in hospital beds, but like him, free spirits, play-fighting with jolly fellows in dressing-up clothes, only pretending to be pirates or Vikings or medieval knights with wooden swords, not scary enemies with guns.

There are some inventive touches, such as hospital beds overturned and becoming grassy graves strewn with red poppies, a ‘Wendy Bird’, cut out of a nurse’s blue uniform fluttering at the end of a long bendy pole, a crocodile created by three lads with a stepladder as his snapping chops. And some sweet, child-friendly jokes: Wendy tells her boys to say grace before they start their meal. ‘Grace!’ they say, obediently, and tuck in. ‘clear the table,’ she says. And they chuck it away.

A Tinkerbell made from lanterns fails to enchant in spite of her animated puppeteer. But if the conceit doesn’t fly, Sam Angell’s peter does, his agile antics skilfully orchestrated by an impressive army of soldiers operating weights and pulleys. Even so, it is the setting – the air filled with fluffy dandelion seeds that catch the light, like fairy dust – which creates the charm in a show that is neither moving nor magical. As darkness fell, only the chill made me shiver.