REVIEW: Wendy leads the way in RSC’s refreshing take on Peter Pan

Peter Ormerod reviews the RSC’s production of Wendy & Peter Pan at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford

Mimi Ndiweni as Tiger Lily and Mariah Gale as Wendy
Mimi Ndiweni as Tiger Lily and Mariah Gale as Wendy

It really can fly, this reworking of JM Barrie’s novel. There are moments of exquisite beauty and thrilling stagecraft, passages when the love and effort poured into its creation are rewarded in full and shine out across the auditorium. For those alone, it justifies its place in the RSC’s pantheon of Christmas productions and makes it a show certainly worth seeing.

As the title suggests, this version of the tale shifts the focus considerably from the original’s emphasis on Peter. But this is no arid, overly PC retelling: there is lusty and full-blooded action aplenty amid griminess and grubbiness and detritus. Here, Wendy is not restricted to conventionally maternal roles: she’s an adventurer, a leader, a spirit of determination and subtle potency. Perhaps some of the male characterisations suffer as a result, but anyone with a deep affection for the original has nothing to fear, with its charm and endlessly deep themes intact.

So Wendy ventures out on a quest to discover the fate of the missing Tom Darling, encounters various other Lost Boys along the way, has a fateful run-in with Captain Hook and, through a mixture of physical and emotional strength, makes everything OK again. She is played wonderfully by Mariah Gale, by turns endearingly insecure and inspiringly strong-willed. She defies the usual stereotypes of heroism, finding instead a character who is fully relatable and, strange as it may sound in such a fantastical tale, engagingly real.

It cannot be easy however to stage such an energetic show over so long a period, and certain performances seemed to show evidence of strain. Not all the actors possessed the easy ring of Mariah’s voice, with some lacking clarity and conviction with their lines. Peter himself, played with strapping mischief by Rhys Rusbatch, was not an especially prepossessing presence; by contrast, Darrell D’Silva’s Captain Hook was almost too sympathetic, a villain fallen far from the height of his evil powers and now struggling to hide his fears of old age. Huge credit however should go to Arthur Kyeyune, who played the crocodile with silent menace and eerie threat, his bendy-boned slithering across the stage otherworldly and genuinely creepy.

This production has itself been reworked since it initially ran two winters ago. Its script is still not faultless, with its propensity to be wordy and, bar some glorious lines, its lack of poetry. It runs into some difficulties with the convolutions of its second act; and ironically, given the insights into gender evident elsewhere, the portrayal of males who fail to conform to stereotypes of masculinity tended to the vaguely mocking. It also feels on occasion weighed down with ideas, many of which were told as well as shown.

But aesthetically is it a triumph, resembling a beautifully illustrated storybook brought to life. There are no attempts to mask the ropes hoisting the actors, and their flying is all the more convincing for it, the apparatus suspending our disbelief as well as the players’ bodies. Choreography ranges from the graceful to the savage, entirely appropriately, and the imagination the staging is frequently flabbergasting and occasionally deeply moving. The music fits well, too, underscoring the action, heightening the drama and drawing out the tenderness while remaining unobtrusive.

It’s not without its flaws, then, but overall, Wendy & Peter Pan is a magical and mesmerising theatrical feast. Aside from anything else, it says something for it that the show appeared to hold the youthful audience transfixed throughout its two hours and ten minutes. Adults play all the roles in Wendy & Peter Pan, and it may help find the lost child inside you.

* Wendy & Peter Pan runs until January 31. Call 01789 403493 for tickets.