Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Peter Pan

J M Barrie, adapted by Mike Kenny
York Theatre Royal
(2011)

Peter Pan production photo

Peter Pan, the latest collaboration between Mike Kenny and Damian Cruden, following on from Olivier-award-winning The Railway Children and last year's The Wind in the Willows, is a theatrical delight.

The production, another commendably adventurous, large-scale show in the Theatre Royal's temporarily reconfigured main house in the round, is surely the most successful, fully realised yet of the theatre's ensemble season. A massive cast of 40 youth theatre actors, rotating in teams of ten, has been put together to play Lost Boys and other inhabitants of the Never Land. Three members of local company Belt Up Theatre play Hook's pirates, with four more roles going to established actors who have previously appeared in main house shows at the theatre.

It seems at times as though each actor's smallest movement is closely choreographed to Christopher Madin's exciting, sweeping score, lending a joyous cartoon-like quality to the action. The opening is a whirlwind of pirate deaths and pillow fights, with all the actors (young and not-so young) clearly rejoicing in the fun. Richard G Jones' lighting design creates the various (overlapping) worlds into which we enter with moments of real beauty and magic.

And this is exactly as it should be with the play. Kenny's adaptation is light and bubbles along, preserving the best of Barrie while judiciously cutting to the chase and adjusting some of the original with tact, to ensure that the evening whips along at speed. He manoeuvres with skill around the staging challenges inherent in Barrie's world of imagination. Better yet, his text maintains (and at times reinstates or augments) the original's melancholic sense of the cruelty of children, the ambiguous nature of Pan as an exciting but dangerous, troubled, wonderful boy. This is far from the Disney version, and further from pantomime, and the better for it.

The performances complement this work finely, and Cruden's staging, on Dawn Allsopp's splendid design, also does much to play with both heartstring and funny-bone in equal measure. A great sense of camaraderie erupts from Dominic Allen, Joe Hufton, James Wilkes and Martin Barrass as the pirate crew, oscillating with ease between exuberant playfulness and the menace of childhood fears. Cornelius Macarthy as Peter is by turns bouncy and petulant, slitting pirate throats with glee but fearful and fascinated by Wendy in equal measure. Andrina Carroll is a mischievous mother, and it is a mark of the intelligence of the adaptation that her doubling as Tiger Lily and appearance as the Never Bird are both entirely logical and, at times, heartrending.

In fact, much work has been done in script and staging to add even further layers of significance to the world of make-believe depicted before us, and this is all to the benefit of the story. It also gives Robert Pickavance the opportunity fully to contrast the father, who is distinctly more straitlaced than his wife, with a theatrical, spot-on Captain Hook. Pickavance is a joy in both roles, delivering Hook's soliloquies with a gravity approaching the tragic Shakespearean, while also swashbuckling eagerly.

Finally, it seems unfair to single out a single team of young actors, but the trio of Wendy (Laura Soper), John (Josh Benson) and Michael (Thomas Lister) whom I witnessed in performance took to their roles with confidence. Soper, in particular, handled the incredibly challenging - and crucial - role of Wendy with awe-inspiring skill, tussling with both motherly and childish instincts in exactly the way Barrie's story demands.

This is a loving, skilful adaptation of an enjoyable, layered and moving classic - one which adults should not resist attending, even without the excuse of having younger theatre-goers to entertain during the summer. If it comes to that, borrow some children. Both you and they will delight in the show.

Reviewer: Mark Smith