Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Peter Pan’, which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 19 January.
The word ‘reimagining’ can strike terror into any reviewer’s fairy heart. Oh No! Someone is taking an age-old favourite tale and messing about with it until it is barely recognisable. So, you can imagine how delighted I am to be able to report that Liam Steel’s awfully adventurous version of Peter Pan is so brilliant – it simply flies by.
With his co-adapter Georgia Christou, Steel has, quite rightly, presumed that Birmingham’s big city kids are going to relate much more to a story about a multi-racial foster family in breeze block Bordesley Green, than to some posh Edwardians in a fine house in Bloomsbury. And they’re right … as the strong, positive audience reaction to the urban ‘soap opera’ style opening immediately scene proves. And, reassuringly for those who know the story, the feisty, kitchen sink dialogue is peppered with forward references to famous moments to come. So, we know we’re in respectful hands.
The three young wards are being rapidly propelled into responsibility and commitment. Cora Tsang’s wicked Glaswegian Wendy is excellent. With typical teenage rebellion, she’s fed up with homework and being told to give Michael his medicine. Yet her bedtime story telling is so wonderful, it charms a pair of swallows into building a nest by the window so their chicks can listen in; a clue for Peter Pan to find her.
His arrival, in the family’s flat pack kitchen, is heralded by outbreaks of static electricity and black hooded shadows. In one of scores of imaginative touches, Lawrence Walker’s Peter Pan has several shadows of varying heights; a short one for lunchtime and tall ones for the evening.
Mirabelle Gremaud’s Tinkerbell bursts into the show like a scatter bomb – in her shiny silver hot pants and flying boots. She bounds around doing cartwheels on the work surfaces and speaking incomprehensively like a Japanese Mickey Mouse in fast-forward. Yet, her body language and inflections are so wonderfully expressive, we understand every sentiment.
The flying is terrific – though, on Press Night, it wasn’t quite without mishap.
Heavy duty hoists allow for some pretty spectacular acrobatics and dainty descents. With a driving drum soundtrack, the four youngsters engage in the aerial equivalent of synchronised swimming, as they set off to Neverland to join The Lost Ones.
Steel sweeps away all the traditional gender stereotyping. Wendy and Peter play at role-reversal mums and dads; and Tink’s tirade, when being asked to be a clichéd mother figure, is devastatingly funny … especially when translated in the subtitles.
And it’s not Mr Darling who becomes Hook, it’s the foster mother. Nia Gwynne gives us an upright Oxbridge baddie with a calculating Thatcherite tinge, especially when soliciting sympathy for her own rubbish upbringing. Her pirates Rap their shanties – “I rule the freakin’ seas” with boundless bluster – then cringe in adversity and scuttle away when the scary scrap metal crocodile ticks by.
Apart from the Indians (about whom, I guess, it might be tricky to be fully PC), Steel and Christou have faithfully preserved all Barrie’s best lines and all the famous elements of the original. It was lovely to see the stage bathed in aquamarine blue for the underwater Mer-persons scene – and to hear the audience audibly believing in fairies in order to save Tink. Mirabelle Gremaud’s gymnastic, rubber-doll death scene is worthy of an Olympic Silver Medal. And when she does it again – backwards – to revive herself, she should get a Gold.
What has been poured into this production is wave after wave of vivid imagination. The show is decidedly ‘hip’ and ‘with it’ (if those phrases are still current?) but Barrie’s elegant Edwardian sensibilities still shine brightly. It’s a marvellously orchestrated melding of two alien eras. And the kids portrayed on stage will certainly speak volumes about loyalty and family values to the kids in the audience today.