The nursery is gorgeous. Four single beds, with old-fashioned cast-iron bed-heads, and rumpled old-world haberdashery in abundance. Chairs for reading, cupboards for hiding, secret drawers in dressing tables, lamps waiting to be broken, books waiting to be read, chairs waiting to be sat in or jumped on, and a huge bay window, a gateway to the Moon’s silky embrace and the wonders beyond the curtains. A somewhat prim but predominantly loving space, radiating familial harmony and joy. A place where childhood can be perfect.
Surprisingly, there are four Darling children: Wendy, John, Michael and Tom. They squabble and play and sort of love each other as only children spoilt and cared for by their parents can. There is much fake fighting and telling off and plain simple fun. Then Tom, the youngest, gets sick. It seems like a cold so no one pays much attention; young boys get colds all the time.
But his illness grips hard and, almost unimaginably, this vital, warm, engaging and entirely adorable lad dies. The grief is palpable, descending like a dark fog over the nursery. Everyone is shattered, at brink’s edge. Then, the windows fly open and Peter Pan is there, with his shadows. Pan collects Tom and the shadows carry him aloft, and they all fly to Neverland. It is only the hardest of hearts that would not melt somewhat at this tragic-turned-magic sequence of events.
This is Wendy & Peter Pan, a revival, with revisions, of the RSC’s successful Christmas 2013 offering, an adaptation of J.M.Barrie’s seminal play (and subsequent writings) written by Ella Hickson and directed by Jonathan Munby. Hickson’s innovations are many, but her decision to introduce and then kill off Tom Darling is inspired. It allows complexity to the story-telling, and pays off magnificently when, at the play’s climax, Pan explains what he does and how the Lost Boys live such carefree, exuberant lives.
Loss and grieving are important parts of growing up and thus Hickson keeps faithful to the imaginative make-believe world of the boy who would not grow up. The dead do not grow up, and so Tom becomes central to the journey that Wendy (in particular) but also John and Michael undertake in Neverland. They think they are looking for Tom, to resurrect him; in fact, it is Tom who will resurrect them, with a little help from Peter Pan.
Hickson’s work is at its best in the scenes featuring the family (happily, there is no canine nursemaid in this version) and the wild games and silliness of Pan and his Lost Boys. Her treatment of Mr and Mrs Darling is sound; here, they are not merely cookie-cutter parents – Mr Darling is a Lost Boy in his own way, and Mrs Darling a Found Girl, as grief makes her re-evaluate her priorities and carve out some independence.
Where the play almost capsizes is in the seemingly interminable scenes featuring Captain Hook’s motley crew of piratical all-sorts. The playing did not assist, but little entertainment and certainly no suspense or wit is found in those scenes. Most could be savagely cut without affecting the overall outcome; indeed, more time could be given to the development and understanding of the Lost Boys themselves.
What is, unquestionably, the star of Munby’s production is Colin Richmond’s outstanding design. A triumph of imagination and artistry, Richmond’s conception of the look of the key places action occurs is inspired. When Peter Pan takes the three Darling children flying to Neverland, there is a sense that the nursery flies with them. For the sky of Neverland is filled with remnants of the nursery – bed, bedding, furniture, toys – items which tangibly remind of the nursery and provide a constant sense of the imagination of the Darling offspring at work. It is beautiful and very clever.
Neverland itself can be found in different places. The most formidable involves Captain Hook’s ship which sails majestically onto the stage in Act Two, spookily, determinedly and full of piratey promise. Death and terror sail with it. Even when the whole ship is onstage, it never ceases to impress. The lair of the Lost Boys brilliantly erupts from below stage, like some great belch of pleasure, spilling a sense of bravura adventure everywhere. It looks exactly like the perfect playroom for any boy lusty for bruises and banter, and simply seeing it, lustrously seductive in Oliver Fenwick’s warm and playful lighting, ignites one’s inner child.
Actually, Fenwick’s lighting is key to mood throughout – magically highlighting the snow falling outside the nursery room, carefully adding deep shadows where they are necessary for the edgy moments, moodily embracing the sinewy, sly and sinister crocodile, and superbly making the twinkling stars shine and glow when Peter Pan tells his spell-binding tale about the birth of the Lost Boys – a fate that awaits Tom when his family is ready to smile at his thought. Like laughter and tears, Fenwick’s illuminating of scene and character ebbs and flows in precisely the right way.
With the design elements in such brilliantly synchronised hands, the spell that Hickson’s writing achieves at its best is shudderingly evocative. Munby’s vision for the look and feel of the production is unerring. Casting, however, is not quite so consistently successful; although the highs are spectacular, so are the lows.
Jordan Metcalfe, very definitely in the “Highs” category,never puts a foot wrong, making his RSC debut as Michael, the bookish middle child. He totally convinces as a young lad, aware of the indifference that comes with being the second son but resolute in not letting that indifference colour his future. Michael adores his family, feels the pain of Tom’s loss acutely but Metcalfe also ensures that the character is not too wise for his years. His ebullience over the matter of fireflies is superb and he finds exactly the right way to convey the play-fighting between he and his siblings. It’s a measured, thoughtful, and endearing performance of real beauty.
As the littlest Darling, Tom, Sam Clemmet makes an impressive debut too and in quite the hardest part. In a very short time, Clemmett has to entirely win over the audience, for if his death is not devastating, the wheels of the play will fall off. Clemmet, however, has no trouble, effortlessly charming the audience with his particular, very proper, infectious charm. His death is devastating and when he finally re-appears in Act Two, the collective joy of the audience was palpable. An assured and sincere performance of real skill.
Often the most colourless characters in incarnations of the Peter Pan tale are the parents, Mr and Mrs Darling. Not here. Rebecca Johnson was not just practically perfect but actually perfect as Mrs Darling, warmth and heart emanating from her like heat from a volcano. Her sense of dull despair after Tom’s demise was superbly judged and the instability in her relationship with Patrick Toomey’s Mr Darling thereafter, uncomfortably believable.
The script plays with notions of the Suffragette movement and the notion of independent working mothers, and Johnson handles that all with kindness and aplomb. She is quite the Darling.
Toomey likewise. Particularly enjoyable is the way, at various times, Toomey displays the separate and distinct characteristics of his children. You can see each of the four little Darlings in aspects of the father; this is brilliant. He sews rambunctious joy and insensitive officiousness into the fabric of the character, with many buttons of personality along the way. But he is a truly caring and loving husband and father, slightly misguided at times, but willing, and able, to change. Another Darling.
Arthur Kyeyune is sensational as the stalking predator crocodile; a triumph of menace and movement. Mimi Ndiweni makes for a fiery and utterly assured Tiger Lily and she brings real grace to this quite tragic character. The Lost Boys – Lawrence Walker, Cavan Clarke, Douggie McMeekin and Harry Waller – are as bumptious, bright and breezy as one could hope for; each idiosyncratic, each a bundle of fun and, at different times, good foils.
James Corrigan was slightly too tempted too often to “play a child” rather than be one and this served to shave the edge of his John. He looked and sounded the part, but was not as successful as he could have been. In part this was because Mariah Gale, unfathomably, played the uber Tom Boy card as Wendy, leaving Corrigan little ground to claim in the oldest boy stakes.
Wendy is a marvellous part and, on any view of it, is critical to the success of any Peter Pan. There simply is no show with Wendy. In no small measure, that is because Wendy is very definitely a young lady. There is no need, or cause, for a kind of Lord of the Flies aspect to Wendy, either in the Nursery or in Neverland. Yet, here, Gale may have been playing a girl pretending to be a boy, rather than an actual girl. This is not to say that Wendy needs to be pink, frilly and girly; that’s not so. But she can be a bold, brave and astonishing young person and she should be. She doesn’t need to be a tomboy. Or rough around the edges. Girls can play fight with swords and pirates too.
For her part, Gale was not assisted by either the writing for or the playing of the Pirates. None of their scenes really worked and David Langham’s Captain Cook was lily-liveried in deed and delivery. Without a proper villain, one you love to loathe, Wendy can’t really function properly. (The programme states that Darrell D’Silva should appear as Hook but without explanation or acknowledgment Langham had the hook and the fear of ticking clocks the performance I saw.)
Charlotte Mills’ Tink was far too coarse and common to work as an effective ally for Peter Pan and it was not until the later stages, when jealousy had given way to camaraderie with Wendy, that Mills seemed near the essence of the part. This is not necessarily Mills’ fault; the latter part of the play demonstrated what she could do with the part so the decision to play Tink the way she is in the early stages must rest with Munby.
But what did work, and very very well, was Rhys Rusbatch’s marvellous Peter Pan. Magnetic and mischievous, Rusbatch, compelling in every aspect of the character, but especially good at the bravado and the uncertainty, was sheer delight. He looked tremendously non-human, pulled off a slightly ludicrous, and colourful, quiff, and managed the aerial activity with considerable flair. His scene on the flying bed, where he explained his task among the stars to Wendy, was utterly beautiful. His relationship with the Lost Boys was keenly judged and the exuberance he brought to their activities infectious.
Seeing Rusbatch in spritely action, it was difficult not to think of the spirits of the many Ariels who have graced the RSC stages over the years spurring him on. His muscular, but boyish, energy was pitch perfect, in both flight and fight scenes.
It was inspired to conduct the flying with visible wires – seeing everyone fly and seeing how they did it helped with the dual Nursery/Neverland effect, and the flying was not in the slightest less thrilling because one saw the mechanics. In some ways, being in on the joke improved the beauty of it.
The decision to create a faux (almost fetish) boy band of shadows for Peter Pan was less successful, although, in the event, not all of Peter’s shadows were male, which was a trifle odd, but only momentarily. If all of the shadows carried themselves with the effortless style of Simon Carroll-Jones and Jay Webb, the conceit might have worked better.
Olly Fox’s music was terrific and Jason Carr’s orchestrations positively glowed with accomplishment. Aurally and visually, there was surfeit of excellence on display.
Perhaps the most magical aspect of the performance was the look on the entranced faces of the littlest members of the audience who, clutching their recently purchased fake swords, were eager at the end to rush home and re-enact the sumptuous tale upon which they had just gorged.
Can there be a better outcome for a theatrical production?