JM Barrie was obsessed with the loss of youth. It was a theme he returned to throughout his career. Had he been able to hear Sarah Punshon’s adaptation of Peter Pan, he would surely have recoiled at its most stinging line. It is delivered early on by Amy Drake, as the Darling family mother. “Oh, grow up, Wendy!” she snaps.
In Barrie’s world, to grow up is the ultimate threat. In this 21st-century update, Mrs Darling is vexed by the prospect of seeing her ex’s new partner at Christmas and angry that Purvi Parmar’s Wendy hates the idea, too. The girl is on the cusp of adolescence, torn between the childhood innocence romanticised by Barrie and the bitter truths of adulthood. Meeting Matthew Heywood’s Peter Pan, she needs no persuasion to choose youth over wisdom.
In Lotte Wakeham’s punchy production – the first Christmas show in the smartly refurbished Octagon – Wendy opts for imaginative escape. “You want a story, don’t you?” goes the cry at the start, to which the schools audience gives a resounding yes.
Employing just five actors, the show has make-believe built-in. No sooner has Jason Patel made a splash as a gender-fluid Tinkerbell who “doesn’t like being put in a box” than he has ditched the woolly pink jacket and is morphing into a Lost Boy. Likewise, Heywood and Parmar take turns as pirates, Drake plays Captain Hook, and Robert Jackson mops up the remaining parts.
Economy of means becomes an asset in a show with playfulness at its heart. To turn a wooden spoon into a razor-sharp weapon, you only have to believe – just as belief keeps Tinkerbell alive. Designer Rose Revitt allows similar creative freedom with her bare-bones set, although she also surprises us with a concealed ball-pool that bubbles like the sea.
With our imaginations engaged, we don’t doubt the reality of the aerial flying or the ferocity of the crocodile. But however emboldened by Peter Pan’s victories, we remain as children when we hear the most affecting of the songs by Ziad Jabero and Claire Tustin: “Never be too tall or tough / For a cuddle at the end of the day.”
• At the Octagon, Bolton, until 9 January.