Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Peter Pan

Adapted by Stephen Sharkey from the novel by J M Barrie
Northern Stage, Newcastle
(2009)

Production photo

Disney has a lot to answer for. Not only has the Disney version of Peter Pan so influenced the (definitely non-traditional) panto of the same name, but it has also even influenced my expectations of stage productions of the story. I knew I wasn't going to see a panto but even so I felt distinctly uneasy as the show progressed in front of me. This was not the jolly rollicking adventure I expected, nor were the members of the Darling family the characters I (thought I) knew. It was only slowly that I began to realise that the creative team were not giving us their version of the Disney version (yes, I know I've repeated the word "version" twice there: it's deliberate) but had actually gone back to Barrie's story and were re-imagining it in a very "now" way.

In that I was very slow: the kids in the audience, many as young as six (for the show is advertised as being for over-6s and their families), got there long before me and were clearly gripped from the start. Somehow adaptor Stephen Sharkey and his interpreter, director Erica Whyman, have got inside the minds of the child audience and what we see is like a child's imagining, a dream which, while taking us to Neverland, also keeps us in the Darling children's bedroom. Beds become all kinds of things; the stairs not only lead to the downstairs of the house but below decks of the pirate ship; Lost Boys, Pirates and the crocodile (now there's a fine example of a child's imagination) emerge from cupboard doors; characters emerge or vanish through walls; the top of one cupboard becomes a high vantage point like the fo'c'sle of the ship; the top of the other becomes the lagoon where we see the mermaids sunning themselves. And I loved it when, early in the play, Wendy holds up Peter's shadow which tuns out to look just like one of Mrs Darling's stockings!

And the characters! Tinker Bell is not the sweet Disney fairy but a very scary creature with a distorted voice - and that's how it should be. Captain Hook is not the over-the-top panto villain: we can believe that he and his men would love to have a mother to look after them. We feel with the children when their parents go out again to yet another party, leaving them on their own. As for Nana, she's lovely and obviously does make the best mincepies. And yes, Wendy can be a real bossy little madam!

The whole story is seen through the eyes of a child with the baddies being naughty, like children, rather than evil and scary. And even though Tinker Bell is scary, she's on our side really, so that's OK.

Neil Murray's design is simple yet clever and it is beautifully complemented by Charles Balfour's lighting which gives us different colours for each location, setting the mood for each one. The play is performed on a traverse stage stretching the full width of Stage 1, which does give an unusual intimacy to the large auditorium.

It's very much an ensemble piece and it really would be invidious to single out anyone for special praise or censure, for the former is due to all and the latter to none.

I loved Sharkey's version of A Christmas Carol a couple of years ago but had reservations about last year's Hansel and Gretel. This year he's very definitely back on form. This Peter Pan is the perfect antidote to the saccharine distortions of Disney and it held its audience throughout. Another Northern Stage Christmas success to set alongside The Prince and the Penguin in Stage 2.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan