Why do we need another Peter Pan? After all, Pan productions are an annual constant in the Scottish pantomime season, one of the many film adaptations always graces the TV and character and plot references have permeated our cultural landscape.
And yet, those who know JM Barrie’s original know that his actual vision is rarely fully realised. Originally meant as an adult’s lament of a lost innocence, the play is much darker in tone and isn’t supposed to have the jokey wordplay and shenanigans that many modern productions feel the need to add.
The National Theatre of Scotland, along with the Barbican in London, have taken a very large gamble with this current production. Rather than doing a ‘classic’ version, this Pan is brand new. David Greig has been brought in to rewrite the play with John Tiffany staging.
The great paradox of this production is that, though it is being sold as a new and fresh look at the original source, it actually feels much older. Resetting the action in Victorian-era Edinburgh might have seemed like a good idea but it does absolutely nothing for the production other than justify Scottish accents and period costumes. The ambition is there but the execution is sorely lacking and caked in dust.
The biggest drawback is Greig’s script. Greig peppers the play with new dialogue that feels fresh and is fittingly playful. However, his attempts at changing the storyline are mostly noncommittal. Barrie’s Neverland may have been a wondrous place 100 years ago, but it is populated by stereotypes and caricatures. Rather than running with a brand new concept and original adventures, Greig feels the need to constantly return to the source material, so every time he tries something new he then goes back to Barrie, resulting in a play that wants to be new but ends up feeling like an imposter. He has made some changes that are mostly successful, which makes his reluctance to make bigger changes all the more frustrating.
Tiffany and his design team don’t fare much better. Everything in the staging is filled with ideas and concepts that may have seemed right on paper and in the rehearsal room but just don’t really pan out. As with Greig’s script, the production has flashes of brilliance, mostly when it sails into uncharted waters, but none of it fulfils its promise and peters out. There are inspired choices, but other foolish decisions more than counter these.
As for describing the cast, the best word would be adequate. Most of the supporting characters are given little to do and prove all but forgettable once the show is over. However, Kirsty Mackay’s Wendy is actually quite good, a stronger portrayal than usually given, and Kevin Guthrie’s Pan is equally good. Pan is usually played by a female or a young man who can pass as a boy. Guthrie’s Pan is a much more rugged persona, one that looks like he might actually kill an enemy. Cal MacAninch’s Hook has some good moments but is let down by Greig’s indecision. It’s a shame, because every time he does something unexpected the play actually feels more involved, and in those rare moments Hook is something that he hardly ever is: scary.
There is nothing overtly wrong with this Peter Pan, but there is nothing majorly right about it either. It has some great ideas that bare bitter fruit, resulting in a production that wants to be a much more mature production than it is. Ironic for a play about a boy refusing to grow up.
Originally written for Onstage Scotland.
Touring Britain until June 2010. Check NTS website for details.