'Peter Pan' transfers to Troubadour White City Theatre in July 2019. This review is from its 2016 premiere at the National Theatre
There's a kind of melancholy embedded in JM Barrie's 'Peter Pan'. It's a story that's perched, anxiously, on a window ledge, between domestic comfort and rip-roaring adventure. Sally Cookson's gloriously confident adaptation takes a step out and soars.
First staged in 2012, her revised version rampages across the Olivier Theatre's vast stage. Peter Pan's pirate adversaries are led by a bloodthirsty female Hook - Anna Francolini might have stepped in at the last minute (to replace an injured Sophie Thompson), but she wields her iron appendage with abandon, mixing ferocity with knee-wobbling existential terrors. Time's ticking crocodile is on her trail. Around her, the all-adult cast transform from Lost Boys, huddled in knitwear and clutching teddies, to furious pirates in the bloodiest kind of red Breton stripes.
But before we get to the gory bits, Cookson makes sure we really care about the relationships at the heart of the story. Madeleine Worrall's performance as Wendy is especially wonderful. She's full of childlike wonder and pettiness, bickering with her brothers John and Michael. And that makes it extra poignant when the Lost Boys of Neverland try to trap her into mothering them - she fights furiously, at first, before settling into endless games of Mummies and Daddies.
But then, Cookson's play always has one foot in the adults' camp. Instead of relying on wide-eyed theatre wizardry, people fly using 'fairy strings', which are harnesses clipped on by Peter Pan. The magical mermaids, as costumed by Katie Sykes, are flirtatiously
sequinned men who'd look equally at home in an East London drag club. And when Peter refuses to recognise that Wendy loves him, there's an intake of breath from the audience: like Wendy's reluctant motherhood, it's a moment straight out of a relationship between a couple who are decades older.
These subtle feminist readings give the story a real emotional bite. But its fearsome pirate ship, soaring flight scenes and Toby Olie's horrifying mechanical crocodile puppet that will snap up the kids' attention - with so much at stake, growing old is an awfully big adventure.