Review: Peter Pan, Sherman Theatre and Theatr Iolo ★★★★

Production shot of Peter Pan at the Sherman Theatre showing the actress who plays Wendy looking at Peter Pan, standing on a bed with their arms outstretched.

Marine Furet reviews Peter Pan, the Sherman Theatre’s Christmas production in partnership with Theatr Iolo.

Glittery mermaids wearing pink and blue fans as masks, a crocodile puppet, hand drawn stars and planets hanging from the sky, a boy’s shadow playful stretched across white sheets… Peter Pan, this year’s main stage festive production at the Sherman Theatre produced in partnership with Theatr Iolo and directed by Lee Lyford, delights and inspires with feats of aerial circus, design, puppetry, and poetic flights of fancy. 

Catherine Dyson takes up the mantle of devising a play appealing to children and entertaining to their parents with gusto, in this adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s tale about a boy who wouldn’t grow up and his adventures in Neverland. The story is told from the perspective of Wendy Darling, portrayed by Emily Burnett, as she discovers the world of Peter Pan (Rebecca Hayes) and his lost boys (an ensemble energetically performed by Lynwen Haf Roberts, Rebecca Killick, Keiron Self and Edward Lee). The eldest of three, she plays responsible big sister to her younger brothers John (Peter Mooney) and Michael (Kevin McIntosh), as their parents’ marriage threatens to break down. The script, poetic and playful, succeeds in getting laughs from the kids in the audience and frequent chuckles from the adults.

Feminist re-readings of fairy tales seem to be the Sherman’s chosen format for its festive season plays, but this year’s offering is, on closer inspection, less optimistic, and more ambivalent about its heroine’s chances at emancipation. In J.M. Barrie’s story, mothering is Wendy’s destiny; in this contemporary reimagining, there is a bittersweet acknowledgement that mothering is still the exacting emotional and physical labour that it was when the play first premiered onstage – it’s certainly an interesting choice for a family show. Other adaptations occasionally indicate a focus in Wendy by renaming the production after her (Peter Pan and Wendy, or Wendy and Peter Pan), which this production does not, a harbinger of its titular character’s weighty ego. The adaptation closely follows the plot of its original model, but casts a sidelong glance at its portrayal of gender roles, which it does not so much challenge as wistfully question.

From the beginning of the play, the script drops in a number of allusions to coupled life and motherhood. Wendy and her brothers’ play-pretend focus on childbirth; there is a playful, imaginative wedding scene; the lost boys’ games parody and emphasise traditional gender roles, delighting in mocking ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’. Very quickly, Wendy is asked to act like an adult to her brothers, a role she takes on again once in Neverland where she is asked to parent the lost boys. Even Hook, played by Alex Murdoch, is feeling a bit melancholy, full of regrets for her past youth. 

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If this festive night is starting to feel a bit blue, it’s worth noting that these moments are balanced out with aerial circus choreographed by NoFit State, as well as physical comedy, at which all performers excel. There are also some sassy moments from Rebecca Killick, hilariously deadpan as the family’s jaded dog-childminder Nana, then as Tiger, who gives Wendy some useful life skills and encourages her to go on her own adventures. Another highlight is Owen Alun’s exuberant performance as grumpy, yet flirty Tinkerbell. All of these comedic characters also join in and offer Wendy useful wisdom to bear on her relationship with Peter Pan, motherhood and love. Overall, however, they evince a strong sense of scepticism at the consolations of romance, a spirit that seems to be the dominant note of the show. It’s up to Wendy to decide whether to heed their advice, and the play remains open-ended as to her choices on that front. Overall, this does not quite feel like an exhilarated Christmas romp – more like a comforting 90s family drama with holiday vibes. 

Peter Pan is set to the tune of songs composed by Gwyneth Herbert with musical direction from Lynwen Haf Roberts. Like the script, they occasionally give off bittersweet, rather than cheerful, vibes, but they chime perfectly with the set’s surreal atmosphere. Rachael Canning’s dazzling yet modular set is a real treat to look at, full of in-jokes like misspelt warnings to ‘keep oot’ and ‘bewair’ and secret corners, leaving enough space for threatening red eyes to appear around the corner when Hook overhears his traditional crocodile foe approaching. At once contemplative and playful, Peter Pan is a delightful evening for the young, and a bit of a think piece for all the children who grew up.

Peter Pan will be at the Sherman Theatre until 6 January 2023.

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Marine Furet is the IWA's Communications, Media and Engagement Officer.

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