The Open Air theatre on a sunny bank holiday evening is a magical place – the twinkling twilight casting an aura over the second half of the play as birdsong ceases and fairy lights appear in the trees. And that’s before we get in to the magic of the play itself.
The stage is set as the inside of a first world war hospital. Five beds are laid out, shots are fired, soldiers in uniform march in from all angles, softly singing war songs that thread through the entirety of the play. The use of the first world war as a framing device provides a fascinating re-imagining of the play – bringing the context of JM Barrie’s relationship with the Llewellyn Davis boys (of which George died in war) in to sharper focus. It is a haunting opening scene that sets the atmosphere as a decidedly different retelling of this classic children’s tale. We see Nurse Darling reading to a soldier whose eyes are bandaged, others listen on from their beds and cowering in the trenches below, willing for an escape from the tough reality of their existence. And then we are transported, whisked away by a young boy who flies in through the window and embodies the optimism and bravery that our young soldiers wish for.
The colour of the lost boys is a welcome contrast to the monochromatic mundanity of war. They are your usual motley crew of youth and effervescent energy – pillow fights, water balloons, playing at war and colourful scribbles to bring a hideout or Wendy house to life. The performances are strong across the board and allows the playful innocence that so characterises the play to remain an ever-present relief.
Jon Bausor excels himself with the multi-faceted set design. At once so simple, the stage transforms from a hospital to a pirate ship to skull rock almost effortlessly. And yet, the play is self consciously theatrical – with all set changes happening in plain view (there are no blackout lights after all) and the construction of each location built before the audience as if exposing the imagination of children that usually bring the story to life. The production makes a spectacle of the wires and ropes that help the cast to fly. With harnesses and bungy ropes (safety first chaps) the cast are cantilevered around the set by uniform clad soldiers that scale the scaffolding with both pace and precision. It is the world of make believe and imagination unravelled but in the most endearing of ways.
The level of detail to which this performance goes is unparalleled. Whether it’s mermaids with gas masks for faces, tin helmet chimneys or beds that can be flowery banks, pirate planks or walls of a Wendy house, every move and change elicits a smile from the audience. War is always on the horizon – it’s presence is pervasive in the set, the stage hands in uniform or the subtle design of the puppets and props. It is magical and tragic in equal measure – the playful nature of childhood and innocence foreshadowing the loss of youth and harrowing reality of war. These aren’t the babies who fell out of their prams but the boys who never came home.
This is no pantomime, no nursery story and certainly no Disney. It is a concurrently life-affirming and deeply sad representation of a lost generation that might have been; their story that is beautifully and articulately told: No man’s land becomes never land, the trenches the lost boys hideout. This isn’t about Peter’s refusal to grow up, it’s about the life that could be taken from him; the realities of the obligations of the youth of the early twentieth century, and the unpredictability of their futures. A poignant reimagining of a well loved classic that is both touching and thought provoking, and will live on like the memory of youth continues to do.
Peter Pan at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 15th June 2018. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.openairtheatre.com.