Come rain or shine, children love to play outdoors.
Whether it’s pulling their wellies on to stamp in puddles, flying kites on the windiest of days, or sitting on a bench in the woods in the rain watching a theatre production, the weather is just merely a back drop.
And so it was on Friday, when, despite the pouring rain, little eyes sparkled with excitement as pirates and indians clashed swords in the woods, Lost Boys clambered over cleverly constructed sets, and Tinkerbell giggled as she threw fairy dust into the air.
Taking audiences on a journey through the beautiful grounds of South Hill Park, Peter Pan was a magical, adventurous and charming family production.
Telling J.M. Barrie’s story of the boy who never grew up, Peter Pan is the very definition of a timeless classic, but at South Hill Park it felt fresh, with a real depth and exploration in to some of the themes. Mrs Darling’s (Caroline Loveys) heartwrenching cries for her missing children captured the essence of maternal love while Peter and Wendy’s tentative and unspoken romance was very much at the heart of the story.
The lead roles were divided between two Peters (Mike Ayiotis and Jake Willett) and two Wendys (Lauren Hannawin and Ellie Tidy), who switched in and out depending on where we were in the grounds, and it worked well, with all four making us warm to them, and cheer for them in their crusades against Captain Hook.
Director Joe Malyan returns for Peter Pan, having directed last October’s The Borrowers, and it is clear every effort has been made to make this a memorable and magical theatrical experience, with a whole range of different techniques being used to enhance the performance.
Shadows bounced off the walls in the Wilde Theatre (of course it must be Peter Pan), twinkling lights and giggles announced the presence of Tinkerbell, and a charming piece of puppetry introduced us to the loveable Nanna. A sequence where the Darling children learnt to fly, was also a captivating way to welcome us to Neverland.
And then we were taken out of the theatre, by indians who doubled as guides, and invited into the grounds of South Hill Park where dream catchers had been hung in the trees and a pirate ship was docked alongside the lake. Set designer Victoria Spearing has once again demonstrated her exceptional talent, with each piece of scenery so detailed, and so well embedded into the natural world around it.
Costumes, designed by Anne Thomson, were also sensational with plenty of colour and accessories, and almost a hint of steampunk to the pirates and Tinkerbell, who had a fantastic working contraption for her wings.
Amy Cowie, as Tinkerbell, was a sensation throughout. Expressing herself through a series of made up words, giggles and frowns, she played the sidekick with just the right balance of warmth and mischief. And her jealous reaction to Wendy’s arrival was hilarious.
While Tinkerbell’s musical numbers showcased a real strength and style in her vocals, as did the pirates, the other music felt a little less impactful. Sound issues and rain hampered a bit of the volume, but there was a need for the cast to really go for it with their songs, and make them as much of the performance as their brilliant storytelling.
But while the audience might not have gone home with songs in their heads, they left with plenty of happiness in their hearts. Walking back to the Wilde Theatre for the final scene, a little girl in the audience had a spirited conversation with Tiger Lily (Monica Bakir), capturing the wonderful interaction and accessibility of the show.
Captain Hook (Max Puplett) playfully popped his pirate hat on the heads of children in the audience, Smee (Heather Wilson) pretended to steal their sandwiches during the picnic interval, and the indians chatted away as we strolled through the grounds.
This is the kind of performance young audience members will remember far into their elder years, the kind which plants the seed for a love of the theatre when they’re older, and which will one day let them sit back at their office desk or while they’re getting their own children ready for school, and fondly remember their magical trip to Neverland.
Peter Pan is at South Hill Park from Friday 19 August to Sunday 21 August, and Thursday 25 August to Sunday 28 August. Visit www.southillpark.org.uk to book.
I was invited to press night so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.