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Ella Hickson’s adaptation of JM Barrie’s world-famous story of “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” adjusts its emphasis towards Wendy. In Barrie’s 1904 play and 1911 novel, Wendy flies off from her London nursery, along with her two brothers, to follow Pan to Neverland. Once there, in an embodiment of Edwardian domestic virtues, she becomes a mother figure to Pan’s gang of Lost Boys.
As Hickson points out in the programme, even in the early 20th century this was a limited view of a woman’s role: “Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes would have been on the front page of all the newspapers when Barrie [was writing] …” Hickson continues. “I wanted to give [Wendy] something to achieve, to strive for.” Here, therefore, Wendy is on a quest: to find her own “lost boy” – a third brother, Tom, who has died in the opening scenes of the play.
Amber James skilfully brings out the complexities of Hickson’s Wendy: admirable in her courage and determination; moving in her vulnerability; trying to find her place in a boy-shaped world, and to make common cause with the bolshie Tink (Hope Kenna) and warrior-like Tiger Lily (Ami Okumura Jones). James’s Wendy is perfectly counterpointed by Pierro Niel-Mee’s Pan, crowingly committed to leading his Lost Boys into battle against David Birrell’s time-haunted Captain Hook and his pirate gang; fearless in the face of death, that “great adventure”, yet recoiling from responsibility and emotion.
Hickson’s quest theme, however, never really meshes dramatically with Barrie’s story. In spite of dynamic direction from Jonathan Munby and Rupert Hands, the action moves in fits and starts. That said, the production always looks spectacular. Developed by Leeds Playhouse along with the Japanese organisation Bunkamura, and first performed in Tokyo last year, its shifting sets (by Colin Richmond) and space-cheating projections (Taiki Ueda) set imaginations flying.
Wendy & Peter Pan is at Leeds Playhouse until 22 January