Peter and Wendy ****1/2

There are some characters that are so beloved by the world that they take on a collective ownership.  Because of this, such characters can become greatly altered in the public’s mind from what is found in the original source.  James Bond comes to mind, as does Don Quixote.

And there’s Peter Pan.

The Pan character is recognised the world over.  The boy who never grew up, flies, fights pirates and has a fairy for a friend is a favourite, and different versions of the character and setting can be found in pop culture and in numerous art forms.  And yet, when one looks to JM Barrie’s original play, the story and characters are actually much darker, filled with more melancholy and have far richer structures than most modern interpretations.

Mabou Mines’ take on the story is the closest incarnation to Barrie’s original mood and temperament that I have seen in some time.  It isn’t concerned with cheap laughs, big budgets and panto-like characterisations that most productions seem infected with.  It instead tells the story straight and uses staging that makes the audience actively use their imaginations.  It also uses Barrie’s novelisation of the play as its chief source, resulting in a richer and fuller narrative.

The production is quite elaborate.  One narrator, brilliantly played by actress Karen Kandel, tells the story, physically takes on Wendy and voices every other character, all of whom are represented by different forms of puppetry.  Her vocal creations for all of the characters are fun to listen to, especially when she gets into heated arguments with herself.

A cast of seven manipulate all of the puppets, move scenery and at times physicalise some of the supporting characters.  Their faces are always covered by netting so focus is placed on the movement and the puppets.  It is also difficult to not emotionally invest in these puppets as they are all treated with artistic respect and become fully-living characters before our eyes.  This is all heightened by a six-member band and a singer, all positioned in the box seats of the Lyceum.

All of this makes for a rather special production that is emotionally satisfying and magically theatrical.  The original play has many infamous difficulties in staging, including large casts and next-to-impossible technical demands, and this production comes up with excellent solutions to everything.  Large sets are hinted at (except the pirate ship at the end), projections and film make the flying sequence feel rather epic and Tinkerbell is represented by small bells that Kandel rings.

There is a distinct difference between a play meant for children and a play about childhood.  Peter Pan was always meant to be for adults, and it plays like a lament for one’s lost innocence.  This may feel a bit static for those accustomed to flashy productions, but for those of us who miss those days when as children we were convinced that, if we just believed hard enough, we really could fly, this will greatly move you.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

Playing at the Lyceum until September 5 as part of the International Festival.


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