When Ella Hickson first saw Peter Pan onstage, J.M. Barrie’s tale about the little boy who never grew up captured her imagination. Like most little girls, Hickson was asked to identify with Wendy, who becomes Peter’s sidekick as he magics her and her siblings to Neverland. A couple of decades on, Hickson’s own stage version of Barrie’s story is about to redress the gender balance in Wendy and Peter Pan at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh for the festive season. Despite this, that first experience of Barrie’s story has stayed with her.
“It was the flying,” Hickson explains, with more than a hint of wonder in her voice. “I think it’s the only kids story that has flying in it in a very clear and robust way. It’s magic, but it’s not about wizards. If Peter Pan was invented now it would be hard to pitch as a story. It’s not science-fiction and it’s not witchy. It has a fantasy element, but it’s about the power of imagination. That’s quite a hard sell.”
This didn’t stop Hickson writing her version for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013 for a production featuring an eye-wateringly large cast of 23. While Eleanor Rhode’s new production won’t have that luxury, it will feature the starry presence of Isobel McArthur as Wendy and Sally Reid as Tinker Bell, here a much more grounded Tink.
The result is a story which, while fun for all ages, has a seriousness at its core that comes from Hickson looking at both Barrie’s novel and incidents from the author’s life which fed into much of his work. This stems in particular from the death of Barrie’s elder brother in an ice skating accident the day before his fourteenth birthday. It was he who Barrie based the idea of a boy who never grew up.
“It became clear to me that the book is about grief, and how you use a sense of escapism to deal with the darker things in life,” says Hickson. “It’s about how you get over the death of someone, and how a child deals with it using the power of imagination to make a sad family happy again.”
To illustrate this, Hickson has introduced an extra Darling child to her version of the story.
“He dies at the beginning of the play,’ says Hickson, “and Wendy goes to Neverland to try and find her brother, because that’s where lost boys go.”
Barrie first introduced Peter Pan to the world in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, a chapter in his 1902 novel, The Little White Bird, which was later published separately. Barrie’s creation later took flight in his play, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. This was expanded in novel form as Peter and Wendy, published in 1911. Since then, Peter Pan has captivated audiences on page, stage and screen in numerous forms, but is best known by many as a mixture of Disney cartoon and thigh-slapping pantomime principal boy.
For Wendy and Peter Pan, Hickson has not only looked to Barrie’s original story, but has used the history of the time the book was written as a means to put Wendy centre-stage.
“When Barrie wrote the original story,” says Hickson, “it was the time when Emily Pankhurst would have been in prison, so while he was writing it, she would have been on the front pages of the newspapers of the time. One of the things Pankhurst and the suffragettes were fighting for was this idea of girls not growing up and having to become wives and mothers, so that idea was floating around.”
Hickson first came to prominence a decade ago with her play, Eight, written while she was still a student at the University of Edinburgh, and which went on in New York and the West End. Since then, she has had work staged at Soho Theatre and the Almeida, while following the RSC’s production of Wendy and Peter Pan, Hicks explored her fantastical side further in an adaptation of Merlin at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton. For all her reimaginings of Barrie’s tale, Hickson has stayed true to her source.
“We do stay faithful to the story,’ she says. “Peter and Hook are still arch enemies, and we still have crocodiles, and all the lost boys are still in there, but we wanted to tell a children’s story in which little girls are at the centre in a way which they so often aren’t.”
Wendy and Peter Pan arrives at the Lyceum weeks after Jodie Whittaker made Dr Who her own in the face of criticism from some very lost boys. Hickson also cites animated series Tangled, or Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure, which puts the character best known from the Brothers Grimm story for being locked in a tower at the centre of some brand new adventures that seem to chime with Hickson’s own approach to creating female characters who can be heroines.
“There are lots of stories in which evil old women tend to kill beautiful young girls,” she says. “Even in Peter Pan, all the girls in the book try to kill Wendy while all the lost boys are having a great time. In the book as well, Tinker Bell is supposed to be this really curvy and quite sexy figure, so it’s been good to re-write those bits.”
While Wendy may be at the heart of Hickson’s play in a way that makes it eminently current, Wendy and Peter Pan aims to captivate children of all ages.
“I guess there’s something there about this universal theme of story-telling, and how you use the power of the imagination to cope with the realities of life,” says Hickson. “Putting Wendy at the centre of all this makes it feel even more like it’s a contemporary story that is very much about what women and girls can be now.”
Wendy and Peter Pan, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, November 29-January 5 2019
The Herald, November 27th 2018