Marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of JM Barrie, the National Theater of Scotland has brought the playwright back home. Although “Peter Pan” is forever associated with London’s Kensington Gardens, Barrie spent his own childhood in the Scottish town of Kirriemuir. It is with this in mind that helmer John Tiffany and playwright David Greig have relocated the play to Victorian Edinburgh during the construction of the Forth Railway Bridge, a major feat of steel engineering. Instead of Edwardian whimsy, they give us a vision that is rugged, elemental and misty. Despite its strengths, however, the production is more labored than weightless.
Tiffany, helmer of the award-winning “Black Watch,” has marshaled a formidable team for this production, which is enjoying an eight-week U.K. tour, including a run at London’s Barbican. In addition to a 17-strong cast, he has worked with aerial artists, puppeteers, musicians and an illusionist. Many of their contributions are laudable — barring an unlovable and boringly animated Nana — but together they overwhelm the central power of the play.
It begins, thanks to a Chinese circus flying technique, as Kevin Guthrie’s Peter appears high in one corner of the proscenium arch, a cheeky entrance that recalls that of Alan Cumming in Tiffany’s production of “The Bacchae.” He manages to walk vertically down the wall and, with his rope always attached (and always visible), is ever likely to skip into the air and perch on top of the scenery.
The show breaks further laws of nature with the aid of magic specialist Jamie Harrison. Somehow all the Lost Boys fit inside one small cairn-like house and just as inexplicably appear from behind a blanket back at the Darlings’ house. Most wondrous of all is Tinkerbell, a flaming ball of fire that darts about the stage with no obvious means of propulsion. With her conversation sounding like the crackle of burning twigs, she suggests something of the untamed danger of Scottish folklore.
Davey Anderson’s score also draws from traditional sources, a mélange of sea shanties, Burns songs and original folk melodies that frequently interrupt the action. They help mark the transition from the industrial order of the great bridge-building project — realized by the three diamond-shaped platforms of Laura Hopkins’s set — to the more instinctive world of the Highlands, a place for Barrie’s childhood imagination to roam free.
But the magic techniques do not translate into the transformative theatrical magic that Tiffany has achieved in his best work. With so many people on stage and so many people off (working the counterbalanced flying system), the production is too complex to do justice to the simple truth at the story’s heart.
It is good that Kirsty Mackay’s Wendy has been toughened up into a tomboy, but we get too little sense of her impossible love of Peter and too little feeling of the joyful escapism of Peter’s eternal youth. By going to such elaborate efforts to bring the story to life, Tiffany seems to lose sight of the themes that give the play its lasting emotional force. It doesn’t help that he casts the Caledonian Neverland in a dimly lit haze which, although appropriate to Greig’s vision of a mystical landscape, robs the play of its bright and bold fun.
Having established the Edinburgh setting, Greig’s adaptation maintains the overall shape of the play and many of Barrie’s best lines, while giving a clearer dramatic logic to the Neverland sequence. But, in a production that is less than the sum of its parts, such clarity is not enough to give the play a compelling momentum.