JM Barrie may have written Peter Pan a full ten years before the First World War but the analogy was prescient.
Later, the author mourned the tragic loss of his own Peter in Ypres while the country wept as a nation’s youth was wiped out before their time.
So it seemed entirely fitting that Timothy Sheader’s magical and evocative Peter Pan, which opened the season at Regents Park Open Air Theatre on Friday, should reference the Great War.
There was something a little off-kilter about watching, what has now become a Christmas favourite, on the cusp of the summer.
But, thankfully, this is no pantomime but a super, family-friendly show that sets Barrie’s original story in an army hospital.
The juxtaposition works well as we see a ward of injured men who had put away the trappings of their youth to face adulthood prematurely and embark on an awfully big adventure fighting the Hun.
And there was Wendy (Kae Alexander), now a nurse, caring for the soldiers.
Under a pillow she finds a copy of Barrie’s The Little White Bird, the book that introduced Peter to the world, and starts reading for her injured Lost Boys.
This is a production brimming with imaginative scenes that have been beautifully, and skilfully realised by both Sheader and set designer Jon Bausor.
Tommies come on to shift hospital beds which moments later become Wendy’s House, an island, and fields of flowers. The trench around the stage is dressed as The Front Line and the stage itself is occasionally dismantled for dugouts and parts of the Jolly Roger.
Hiran Abeysekera, as the little boy who refuses to grow up, flies above the stage with the aid of sophisticated aerial rigging that sees him hooked to a series of bungee ropes.
It looks great fun and sees him effortlessly take off and land on and above the set.
His Pan is brimming with naïve charm and bravado, a swaggering child-like hero who lives in a world where anything is possible if you belief it to be.
Pan’s nemesis, Captain Hook, forsakes the traditional Cavalier curls for a look closer to the Kaiser, as the villain of the piece (and David Birrell gives us a great cartoon rogue).
His adversary is, of course, the crocodile and again the OAT comes up trumps with an inspired piece of staging.
It doesn’t stop with the crocodile. The mermaids (wearing gas masks) and Tinkerbell are fantastic puppets, jellyfish are created out of umbrellas and schools of fish fashioned from pyjama bottoms.
The Lost Boys are naturally childlike and gushing with innocence. They are expertly portrayed by George Bukhari (Nibs); Eben Figueiredo (an endearing Tootles); Thomas Pickles (Slightly); Jacob James Beswick and Chris Lew Kum Hoi (Twins) and Richard James Neale (Curly).
And the pirates, splendidly attired by costume designer Jon Morrell, are like a bunch of super anti-heroes (and just as athletic – particularly Arthur Kyeyune and the dandy Jonathan Holby).
This is a delightful romp that roots Peter Pan in a reality that we can all relate to. There are moments of poignancy, scenes of pure comedy, and a story that sweeps you from a bombed-out hospital to a land beyond the stars.
An opening production that is an absolute triumph.
Peter Pan runs until June 14.
Regents Park Open Air Theatre creates magic with the delightful and thrilling Peter Pan, running until June 14.