A witty retelling of a classic that leaves no buckle unswashed and no wink to the adults unwinked, this is the kind of production that, in a normal year, would have played to packed houses over the festive season. That this isn’t a normal year means that vacant seats in the auditorium and masks on the faces of those in seats that are occupied create a more subdued atmosphere than this hugely energetic and entertaining production deserves. But it is still a show that will surely make theatre lovers out of youngsters experiencing the art form for the first time.
Adapter Ella Hickson wrings out the humour in every corner of the script, from an unrequited love story between Smee and Captain Hook to near-the-knuckle jokes about the anatomical logistics of how exactly a fairy might end up on top of a tree and, more importantly, stay there.
Taking JM Barrie’s original story and centring Wendy Darling in it is a smart move from Hickson and one that Amber James exploits to the full, playing the Darling girl like Dawn French in her pomp. Her counterpart, Pierro Niel-Mee, gives us a Peter Pan that is one part Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashheart with a generous helping of Robin Williams as he played the role in Hook, Steven Spielberg’s 1991 telling of the story.
It’s a modern sensibility that works for a script that is Pixarian in its ability to appeal to all ages: those who grew up with The Simpsons will look at Smee and think Smithers, while the youngsters on whom those jokes are lost will surely simply marvel at the spectacular stage fights.
Jonathan Munby, who directed the original version of this for the RSC in 2013, throws everything at this, alongside co-director Rupert Hands, staging the piece with huge bombast while not shying away from the story’s dark undertones of death and grief.
The production, which was staged at the Tokyo Olympics, has been hit by delays to the set arriving from Japan and cancellations caused by cases of Covid among the cast over Christmas. It has been entirely worth the wait.
Wendy and Peter Pan is at Leeds Playhouse until 22 January.