The boy who won’t grow up flies triumphantly into the 21st century in this spectacular, supremely family-friendly entertainment, soon to head out on a 20-month U.S. tour. The unique selling point of this “Peter Pan” is its integration of state-of-the-art projections with live-action; the top half of its purpose-built tent serves as a circular screen for William Dudley’s brilliantly realized 360-degree CGI images. Watching Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and the Darling children soar over London, swooping around and through famous monuments, auds are given the joyous and disconcerting impression that they, too, are in flight.
The production premiered in London’s Kensington Gardens this summer, the real-life location where, at the turn of the 20th century, J.M. Barrie met the family he would fictionalize as the Darlings in his famous play and novel. Reviews then were dazzled by the stagecraft but less impressed by the narrative and characterization; director Ben Harrison, adapter Tanya Ronder and the cast have apparently done significant work since to add layers of heart and depth to the story.
Ronder doesn’t shy away from the sadness and oddness of some aspects of Barrie’s tale, in particular in her depiction of nearly all the male characters — not just Peter (Ciaran Kellgren) and the Lost Boys, but the pirates and even Mr. Darling (Jonathan Hyde) — as immature and longing for maternal affection.
This is also unapologetically a story about the dawning of sexual desire: Tinker Bell, here depicted amusingly by Sandra Maturana as a punky elf in pink tutu and workboots, and Abby Ford’s touchingly tomboyish Wendy are engaged in an ongoing, low-level catfight over Peter, whose feelings for Wendy are intriguingly Oedipal.
This is enhanced by the choice to have child characters played by young adult actors. While Kellgren over-exaggerates the impish/puckish side of his character, there’s something productively disconcerting about his exposed and well-toned physique.
All this, plus Hyde’s gloriously camp turn as a self-dramatizing Capt. Hook, gives adults lots to engage with, while kids as young as three will be dazzled by the highly physical, in-the-round storytelling, and Sue Buckmaster’s beautifully inventive puppets (the ticking crocodile, driven by puppeteer Mohsen Nouri like a race car, is a particular treat).
But the piece de resistance is the visual imagery. Initially, Dudley’s projections provide a static backdrop of London rooftops framing the Darling children’s loft bedroom. When the children head off to Neverland, the animations come alive and are timed perfectly with the motion of the actors as they lift off from the playing area. (The flying is unfussily handled; the actors quickly hook themselves onto suspension wires without trying to mask the activity.)
There’s great fun to be had recognizing London landmarks as we fly above them; for U.S. auds this will doubtless add to the exotic appeal of the production’s Englishness.
When the characters land in the Lost Boys’ lair, the projections switch from aerial shots of blue seas, tropical islands and a pirate ship in the distance to closeups of leaves and branches — we’ve dropped below the foliage line. The projections switch to a view from the pirate ship deck and it’s clear we’ve made an instantaneous change of location. The blend of this screen-based storytelling with live, enacted scenes creates a pleasingly complex dramaturgy that audiences of all ages seem well able to read and absorb.
The possibilities of this combined narrative form will stimulate the imaginations of those interested in the future of live and screen entertainment, even as a new generation of theater audiences will walk away happily believing fairies really do exist.