If theatrical stars were all about levels of ambition, then the rating for Ella Hickson’s Wendy And Peter Pan, at the Lyceum this Christmas, would be off the scale. In creating her stage version of Peter Pan – first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013 – Hickson has connected brilliantly with the themes of death and loss in JM Barrie’s original story, and with her own sense that the play is somehow a “manual for grief” for young audiences.
Theatre review: Wendy and Peter Pan, Lyceum, Edinburgh ***
So time and again, she foregrounds the ways in which characters die or are threatened with death, and magically reappear again; and frames the whole story of Peter Pan and Neverland in a narrative about how the Darling children – Wendy and her brothers John and Michael – have just lost another brother, Tom, whose death has plunged the family into misery.
The problem, though, is that Hickson doesn’t quite have conviction to restructure the whole story and script around the inspired central image of Wendy’s quest to recover her lost brother. Isobel McArthur’s stressed-looking Wendy is never given the chance to talk to the audience, and invite us into her journey; instead, we get more chat from Gyuri Sarossy’s cockney-villain-style Captain Hook, who wins the audience’s sympathy simply by acknowledging our presence. And time after time, chances are missed actually to dramatise, rather than just mention, Wendy’s growing anger at the weight of emotional and practical housework expected from her, while endless, laboured time is spent on wordy versions of familiar scenes largely irrelevant to this particular narrative.
The pace picks up greatly towards the end, when Wendy forms an alliance with Neverland females Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily, and becomes captain of the fightback against Hook’s pirates; and there is a magical climactic scene in which Wendy learns from Pan how to deal with her brother’s death. Yet with a joyless set covered in small grey foam breeze-blocks, the most disappointing crocodile in panto-land, deliberately chaotic fights, and the constant confusion about why people who have just been killed aren’t dead, it’s small wonder that one small kid was to be heard querulously asking “what’s happening now?”; in an all-too-honest reaction to a truly fine idea for a 21st century Peter Pan, which neither Hickson nor her director Eleanor Rhode has been able fully to realise. - Joyce McMillan
Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 5 January