Peter Pan is currently enjoying a critically acclaimed but maddeningly short run at the Open Air Theatre. (I understand the logistical reasons behind back-to-back productions in Regent’s Park, but I do miss a summer repertory that allowed more time for audiences to book and catch up.)
You only have until 14 June to see this Peter Pan, and you really should because, no matter how well you think you know JM Barrie’s classic story about the “the boy who wouldn’t grow up”, you will be surprised by what you still have to learn about it.
“You think you know Pan? You don’t know Pan. If other productions of his drama about the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up were this good, it surely wouldn’t have faded into pantomime hell…” – Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out
First and foremost, did you know that JM Barrie wrote Peter Pan as a metaphor for the “war to end all wars”? Of course, you did. It’s obvious: the Lost Boys are the “lost generation” of the conflict, the mothers who leave their windows open for boys who will never come home are the grieving parents of the war dead, the fairy dust is the deadly mustard gas that allowed young soldiers to fly away from the battlefield and to the heaven of Never Land….
“The Great War pervades Never Land, from judicious period musical choices to army props and the elegant paralleling of Mrs Darling waiting for her children and soldiers’ families awaiting their return from the Front; both experience re-entry problems. The innocence of the lovably puppyish Lost Boys’ war games is lost, and the clarity of honour decimated.” – Marianka Swain, The Arts Desk
Okay, actually, that’s not quite true. Whatever Barrie’s imaginative powers, Peter Pan premiered in 1904, a full ten years before the start of World War One.
But Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel’s ingenious production will have you checking your dates (as I did). This is a director’s concept that fits the story, and the backstory, so frightening well, that’s it’s hard to imagine that it’s not exactly what the original writer intended.
Sheader and Steel took as their inspiration for this radical Peter Pan re-imagining, the real-life fate of three of the four Llewellyn-Davies boys, who were Barrie’s inspiration (and, later, his wards, after their mother died) for the Neverland fantasy. Boys when he first conceived Peter Pan (who first appeared in his 1902 novel The Little White Bird), they were prime military service age when war was declared.
“The rationale behind this version is that the Llewelyn Davies boys who inspired the story were directly affected by the war and that a whole generation learned the tragic absurdity of Peter’s proud vaunt: ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure.'” – Michael Billington, Guardian
The two Llewellyn-Davies eldest, George and Peter (yes, the real-life Peter), volunteered. George was killed by a sniper in the trenches at Ypres in 1915, aged 21. Peter suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder and was invalided out of the war after the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Even back on the homefront, tragedy for the lost Llewellyn-Davies boys continued. The youngest of the original four, Michael (you see where Barrie got all his characters’ names, right?), died by drowning (a suspected suicide) in 1921 at the age of 20, while a student at Oxford.
“The staging revels in derring-do while also demonstrating how adventure stories framed the ideals of the boys who would grow up but never grow old.” – Sarah Hemming, Financial Times
And, as heart-wrenchingly portrayed by Ben Whishaw in John Logan’s 2013 play, Peter and Alice, Peter Llewellyn-Davies continued so suffer – from the horrors of the war, the loss of his family members, the pressure of Pan – for the rest of his life until he threw himself in front of a train at Sloane Square in 1960.
Beyond the press release, and the battlefield nurse on the show’s poster, the Park has been careful not to give too much away about how this vision of the piece is realised. Amongst the selection of production shots on offer, there are no pictures of the tunnels of trench that ring the stage, the bombed out walls of the church-turned-battlefield hospital, the gasmask-wearing mermaids and myriad other uses of wartime tools and weapons to create the tarnished spectacle of Neverland.
So, you’ll have to just go – quickly, quickly – in order to see it for yourself.