‘Look I’m flying’ shouted a child during the interval of Peter Pan at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. I looked up as he repeated the feat underneath one of the trees in the picnic area. Sadly he hadn’t flown at all – he’d just taken a slightly bigger step than normal – but JM Barrie’s Peter Pan is clearly still inspiring children more than 100 years after it was written.
Directed by Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel the production takes the flying seriously with Hiran Abeysekera taking to the skies several times courtesy of aerial expertise from the Wired Aerial Theatre. In the script Peter claims flying is merely a matter of thinking wonderful thoughts. This theory is quickly disproved. The production deliberately shows the audience the usually-behind-the-scenes counterweighting, with cast members climbing up and down stanchions to control Peter’s flights. This is not a Peter Pan that celebrates magic and fairytales – the play starts in a World War One field hospital at the Somme where letters and presents arrive from home for the injured soldiers.
Amongst the recuperating soldiers one of the officers has lost a limb. He is fitted with an artificial arm… Captain Hook is one of the donkeys leading lions. The army officers who used out-of-date techniques against modern weapons and contributed to the awful slaughter are the piratical enemies. The whole tale of flying boys with mummy-issues seeps from the fevered brains of the shell-shocked. With armed soldiers positioned around the stage, looking blankly up at the sky, this setting is a success and gives an underlying seriousness to the later flights of fancy.
Kae Alexander’s Wendy is a friendly elder sister who knows all the answers. Abeysekera has mastered the rope work, sorry, flying, and is an impish delight when he takes off amongst the trees of Regent’s Park. Tinker Bell is a wannabe robot controlled with aplomb by Rachel Donovan, whilst Beverly Rudd makes a most amusing Smee. Great thought has gone into the props, although I complain of the constant visual barrage of dirty long johns. The puppet design by Rachel Canning is excellent, making crocodiles out of ladders and swans out of suitcases and adding to the spectacle.
If you don’t know the story it is confusing and not easy to follow. There is a weirdness to men playing kids, especially when they all get into bed to hear a story from Wendy. The mother fixation is disturbing. If Peter Pan wasn’t already famous chances are it would struggle to succeed. But here kites fly over the audience, kids laugh. What matters most is the vibrant outdoor spectacle.
The theatre complex is just inside the Inner Circle of Regent’s Park. It is an excellent summer venue, with picnic areas, a large bar and well raked stadium seating. With mature trees surrounding the stage and the sky above it is one of London’s most unusual theatres. A visit is highly recommended