With opening night just around the corner, the multi-talented cast of WENDY & PETER PAN are soaring to new heights ready to transport audiences to Neverland as Ella Hickson’s spectacular adaptation of the JM Barrie classic prepares to take flight in Leeds.
New rehearsal images available here give a first glimpse of WENDY & PETER PAN played by Amber James and Pierro Niel-Mee flying round the rehearsal room to escape the clutches of Captain Hook played by David Birrell and his motly crew of swashbuckling pirates. The ensemble company of actors are working with Co-Directors Jonathan Munby and Rupert Hands alongside Movement Director Lucy Hind to create this spectacular production filled with big dance numbers, sword-fighting battles and a magical set to transport audiences passed the second star to the right and straight on to Neverland at Leeds Playhouse this festive season.
Telling the timeless tale of love, courage and the friendship between a boy who never grows up and a girl who has had to grow up too soon, this reimagined classic is packed with theatrical magic, beautiful designs by Colin Richmond, an epic score by Japanese composer Shuhei Kamimura, flying and plenty of laughs. It promises to be a truly unforgettable journey for all the family. Japanese video artistry will be cleverly combined with the reinvigorated classic British story to give the production a unique international shared vision.
WENDY & PETER PAN, a Leeds Playhouse and Bunkamura production, will run atLeeds Playhouse from18 November 2021 – 22 January 2022.
Leeds Playhouse is welcoming audiences back into the building safely. The Playhouse will continue to abide by national guidelines and will keep audiences informed about its ongoing covid safety measures.
WENDY & PETER PAN is sponsored by our Principal Capital and Families Partner Caddick Group.
Wendy & Peter Pan
A Leeds Playhouse and Bunkamura production
By Ella Hickson
Adapted from the novel by JM Barrie
Co-Directors Jonathan Munby and Rupert Hands
18 Nov – 22 Jan
Press Night Wed 7 Dec
Wendy & Peter Pan playwright Ella Hickson talks about the challenges of reimagining a classic for modern audiences – and why every great festive family show needs to explore the darkness of life as well as the joy
When did you first become aware of JM Barrie’s original Peter Pan story? Was it a childhood favourite?
I think I must have seen the Disney one – I remember the little elfin boy and the very blonde Wendy. I also think I was probably read the book as a child. Rereading it as an adult though I finally recognised the story’s weirdness and complexity. To be honest, that was quite a shock. There’s also a huge difference between the various stage versions and the book. I think I saw the play at the National Theatre when I was about 12 so I definitely had a bit of a Disney-National mash-up in my mind.
Was it daunting to tackle such a well-loved tale?
There was this fear of missing all the bits that people love, so my first draft ended up being about 200 pages long because I was trying to cram everything in: the Never Bird, the mermaids, Nana – there was definitely a loyalty issue to the original. There were all these traditional elements – including Hook having to look like King Charles – which I threw in so the first draft was a bit kitchen sink-y. And then I got the confidence to do what I really wanted to do – to be bolder and not get so lost in the original. I needed to be clearer and more strident in my own storytelling.
I had a fear – not unfounded as it turns out – of the preciousness of some middle-aged men. There was this real feeling of ‘what on earth do you think you are doing?’ because their attachment to the story is so strong. I mean, Wendy has been cleaning and making curtains since she was nine but you’re 54 and upset because you’re not allowed to keep playing like a little boy? The reviews turned out to be very supportive though and I only received a few stroppy letters from the corduroy brigade.
At the other end of the scale, I knew I couldn’t be bombastic; the story still needed to feel familiar. When you’re adapting or retelling a popular story, you’re usually pushing back against something but, in this case, because the rights are owned by Great Ormond Street Hospital, they let you do what you want. So, I had to listen to my own internal critic rather than fight against anything external.
Why did you feel it was important to retell the story from Wendy’s viewpoint?
There’s some weird stuff in the book at a Freudian level attached to the fear of getting older. For the Lost Boys, women are either a mother or a doll, which is a crazy thing to be reading to incredibly porous little brains before they go to sleep. There is racism in the book around Tiger Lily and casual misogyny throughout – every girl tries to kill every other girl at some point, and they’re all fighting over Peter. It’s wild.
It was written at the same time that Emmeline Pankhurst was being force fed in jail, so that would have been on the front page of all the newspapers when Barrie wrote his book. Women were getting angry, practically, physically and culturally, so it’s strange to me that, in that environment, he sat down and wrote Wendy Darling.
I had to work really hard to find her. I was determined not to be aggressive and not to obliterate everything about the original Wendy. I just wanted to give her something to achieve, to strive for. The whole point about Peter Pan character is that there’s no growth, so it had to be Wendy who went on journey, who grew up.
Are there particular elements of the original story that you knew you had to keep?
All of the flying – that was an absolute must. I wanted to retain that idea of magical transformation, changing the nursery into Neverland, so there’s the potential to wonder whether the journey is just in the imagination. I wanted Hook to be funny and very scary. I wanted the Lost Boys to be lovable – a really glorious gang. Peter is still a bit annoying but attractive and lovable – he’s swapped his panpipes for a harmonica, so he’s much cooler. Tiger Lily and Tink are still there – although Tink is actually more like Barrie’s original, who he described as having embonpoint, not like Disney’s tiny wee thing. In the book she talks about fairy orgies and is a thief.
The only bits we don’t have are the mermaids and Nana. With Nana, I never understood why there was already magic before they got to Neverland. And also dogs on stage – why would you?
This is a festive family show so how have you made sure it appeals to all generations?
I think this show works on all levels. There are some naughty jokes that the kids won’t get but the adults will. There’s also lots for the kids in terms of spectacle and fun. There’s a huge game of bubble ball, there’s all the flying and lots of acrobatics. Even if they’re too young to get to grips with the script, it’s visually stunning.
The spine of my story is about a family who lose a child. We all know that there is loss in life but the story deals with it in a cathartic way. It’s moving but also hugely redemptive. It takes the whole family on a journey that helps them heal. Whether you’ve lost a loved one, lost your job, or are grieving the loss of two years of your life because of the pandemic, this is a story about how to get happy again.
Your version of the story explores some of its darker elements. Other great festive pieces – like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – do the same. Why do you think it’s important to explore the darkness as well as the joy?
Kids know what’s going on. If you patronise them and only present them with the joy, they feel suspicious and unsafe. They know that life has dark elements and they mistrust people who lie to them about that and who pretend that everything is joyous. I think there’s a real catharsis for kids if you show them people who are brave enough to get the monster out from under the bed. Fairy tales from the beginning of time have been about dealing with dark stuff. And they know that it’s all going to be alright in the end. We’re going to look after them.
The festive season is traditionally when most families visit the theatre together as part of their annual celebrations. What makes theatre such a magical experience at this time of year?
I think it’s glorious. When something happens to Tink, you get grandparents and four-year-olds all on their feet clapping away for all they’re worth. That doesn’t happen in front of the telly.
It’s a story that gifts something different to every member of the family and yet it allows the whole family to go home talking about the same thing. Everybody has someone to relate to.
This is a story packed with lots of laughs and a big old jig at the end but, at its heart, it’s a story about love.
It also gives families a chance to spend time together without someone having to run around cooking, organising games and doing all the mad things we do at this time of year. Letting someone else look after your experience for two hours knowing that you’re going to come out of the theatre feeling magical, having laughed, cried and learned something is glorious. It lets you off the hook.