Theatre review: Peter And Wendy

PETER AND WENDY ***** ROYAL LYCEUM THEATRE

AS A classic Scottish lad o' pairts, setting off from humble origins to find fame and fortune in London, JM Barrie of Kirriemuir was in many ways a child of the Enlightenment. But the darkness that struck him in childhood when his adored older brother David was killed in a strange skating accident seemed to freeze his heart into a lifetime of yearning for the careless joy of early childhood, and of grief over its transience.

And that in turn made Barrie a great writer about what has emerged as the other great theme of this year's EIF theatre programme: the power of imagination and memory to creative alternative and sweeter realities, which break our hearts when they slip beyond our grasp.

So it's both fitting and thrilling that one of the final productions of this year's festival should be Mabou Mines of New York's magnificent and haunting stage version of Barrie's 1911 novel Peter And Wendy, an extended prose version of the earlier Peter Pan play. Driven throughout by a beautiful, pensive score created by the late Scottish traditional musician Johnny Cunningham, the show features a seven-piece live band including singer Susan McKeown, and cast of nine including eight puppeteers. There's also a wonderful design by Julie Archer, built around piles of nursery linen and pale-coloured hints of dolls' houses, animated in an instant by superb lighting and wild projected images to create all the pirates-and-mermaids magic of Neverland.

At heart, though, this Peter And Wendy is a brilliantly elaborated solo show, in which the astonishing narrator Karen Kandel – playing the voices of all the characters, and also personally embodying the figure of Wendy as the archetypal child-mother who must grow up – makes a compelling and heart-searching dramatic journey through the magic of childhood, into the long letting-go of dreams and alternative possibilities that is adult life.

There's nothing perfect about Breuer's show, which has been in development for 13 years, and may not be finished yet. But it trembles with raw theatrical and imaginative life, as Kandel re-imagines the story in front of our eyes; and in its very transience, it embodies the essence of the great tale it tells.

Until 5 September. Today 7:30pm.

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