Wendy and Peter Pan, Leeds Playhouse, review: girls take centre stage in an enchanting revival

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Peter Pan – the boy who never grows up – is also the boy who never ceases to be reinvented. Playwright Ella Hickson’s clever decision in 2013, when commissioned by the RSC, was to put the focus on Wendy instead. In doing so, she interrogates some of the more tired elements of JM Barrie’s story – where Lost Boys play, but Wendy only gets to play house; where boys band together but female characters are all rivals; where Wendy is mere damsel in distress. Yes – in this version, Wendy, Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily get their kick-ass, girl-power moment.

But Hickson’s re-telling is also uncommonly thoughtful and nuanced – adults will find themselves nodding at the way Wendy and Peter become miniatures of Mr and Mrs Darling. And she beautifully brings out the sadder undertows of Barrie’s original: here, Wendy wants to go to Neverland to find her own “lost boy” – a brother who died in childhood – and it becomes a moving metaphor for how to cope with grief.

This is not Wendy & Peter Pan’s first revival, and it seems set to become a modern classic – even if, at almost three hours long, the plotting can sprawl and flies over the heads of younger children. In the years since it debuted, conversations about gender stereotypes have also moved on, in theatres at least, so these days you’re more likely to see this kind of stompy, sarcastic “Tink” in hi-tops on stage than any dainty Disney-esque creature.

But there’s still magic in this re-mounting by original director Jonathan Munby and co-director Rupert Hands. A chorus of shadows dance through the space, whisking us through scene changes and characters’ transitions onto aerial wires. Their flying in front of projections doesn’t work – the set gets in the way – but what a set! Colin Richmond’s designs are enchanting, a beamed attic nursery turning seamlessly into a forest, and then an underground den filled with the Lost Boys’ colourful, steampunk junk inventions. Later, a sizeable pirate ship sets sail through the stage.

The swashbuckling is, for once, actually thrilling – benefitting from Christopher Shutt’s clanging sound design and fight director Terry King’s choreography. However, the direction too often lets the tension drop at crucial moments: Hook’s first entrance, and various apparent deaths, fail to resonate as they should. With a whole lot of plot to get through, the action can be frantic and breathless rather than taut – and that goes for comedy moments too, passing in a flurry of on-stage giggling rather than laughter from the audience.

The production keeps Barrie’s Edwardian setting, and there’s some mannered, period-drama emoting on stage. But David Birrell is good fun as both Mr Darling and Hook, an ageing, mournful figure whose vendetta against Peter Pan is all about his own battle against time. What this Hook really wants is Pan’s youth; the chance to live life over again. And Amber James as Wendy Darling is a breath of fresh air. Pierro Niel-Mee makes for an impish, energetic Peter and is rather dashing with a sword – even if this Wendy would rather rescue herself.

Until Jan 22; leedsplayhouse.org.uk

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