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BWW Review: PETER PAN, National Theatre, 2 December 2016

It's no pantomime!

But what an awfully big theatrical adventure it proves to be.

Sally Cookson has brought her Bristol Old Vic production to the Olivier, the National Theatre's biggest, grandest stage, transforming it into a Neverland which, like Peter Pan himself, I did not want to leave. There's spectacle, wit and wonder and a throbbing edge about loss and the passage of time that never goes away, giving those of us sitting next to our own children much to contemplate as they hurtle towards their futures, another Christmas soon to be notched.

Paul Hilton's Peter Pan has the look and mischief of Eddie Tudor-Pole in his Crystal Maze days and channels some of his dictatorial attitudes too. Peter is brave (with the lives of others as well as his own) and inspires loyalty, but The Lost Boys have to live on his terms, an arrangement which, when Wendy turns up and plays "Mother' rather than "Leader", they begin to question.

Madeleine Worrall's Wendy is full of busy middle-class good sense, if inevitably somewhat prissy, but she leavens her strictures with good humour and a growing ache of adult attachment towards Peter, something he recognises and refuses to return, one of many moments of cruelty that show life as it will be lived once a child does grow up. If some of that nuance goes over the heads of the smaller kids, the teens will get it with a tinge of excitement - and their parents will too, but with a tinge of wistfulness. There's plenty in this production for everyone in the audience.

If there are doses of introspective angst amidst the bedtime stories and forays against the pirates, there's vibrant villainy too from Anna Francolini's Hook, whose credentials as a truly evil presence are established beyond doubt in her introduction. She also delivers the standout scene as the second half opener, putting on her costume, snubbing out her cigar, the look and feel unmistakably drawn from Cabaret's Weimar aesthetic - in a show not short of loud wow! moments (the crocodile!!!), it's a quietly understated illustration of the weakness of tyrants when stripped of the accoutrements of power.

With Benji Bower's minstrels providing music (the highlight of which is a show-stopping, airborne, and, in the circumstances, tear-jerkingly poignant version of Karen Carpenter's "Close To You") and some lovely support for the principals, especially from Ekow Quartey's Nana and Saikat Ahamed's Tinkerbell, the show's two and a half hours running time passes in a flash - like the innocence of youth.

I've never much enjoyed Peter Pan - as a child who longed to grow up quickly and who has encouraged his own children to do likewise, I've never empathised with his refusal to become a man, while blithely lording it over The Lost Boys - but this production made me think harder about Peter. He is pulled towards the security a mother provides, but rejects it for the compromises that it or an adult (i.e. sexual) relationship requires. He's restless and bored as a consequence, getting his kicks fighting pirates in an endless version of public school rugger... and to what end? The crocodile may be Hook's nemesis, but the croc's ticking clock is everyone's.

Maybe the lesson is to embrace time for all its challenges and not be stuck, forever outside the window looking in, like the Boy Who Never Grew Up.

Peter Pan continues at the National Theatre until 4 February, 2017

Photo Steve Tanner.

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From This Author Gary Naylor