Captain Hook actor explains Peter Pan’s strange history ahead of Regent’s Park run

Rehearsals of Peter Pan at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Rehearsals of Peter Pan at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Picture: Tristram Kenton - Credit: �Tristram Kenton

David Birrell tells Bridget Galton why Peter Pan was originally the baddie and why Captain Hook was once a minor character.

David Birrell’s career has included lead roles in Sweeney Todd, Chicago and Spamalot; numerous productions for the RSC and working with directors from Sam Mendes to Michael Grandage.

Having already starred as Captain James Hook in a musical version of Peter Pan, he returns to Regent’s Park Open Air theatre in a new version that takes inspiration from the First World War and the Du Maurier and Llewelyn Davies family who are buried in Hampstead parish churchyard. The season runs until September 12 and includes The Seagull, Lord of The Flies and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Bookings

You’ve played Regent’s Park and The Globe before…how do you feel about the weather?

At The Globe the audience are in the open and the actors are covered but at the park everyone’s outdoors. You can take a bit of rain, but they stop the show if they fear for the actor’s safety. (Director) Tim Sheader does a fantastic talk on the first day about how you will end up knowing more than a BBC meteorologist, but there’s a certain magic and electricity at matinees when you can see very single face as you look out – there is nowhere to hide and a certain complicity between audience and actors because neither of you can fall asleep. There’s an immediacy because they can’t sit back and enjoy it in the dark that puts them on the edge of their seat.

Gerald du Maurier, Jason Isaacs, David Hasselhof, Henry Winkler (pictured right), Boris Karloff and Dustin Hoffman have all played Hook – a hard act to follow?

I’ve done a musical version where the story is moved along by the songs, but the design and concept of this version looks at a period in history that has particular resonance to JM Barrie. My inspiration comes from that. Barrie says Hook’s from the aristocracy, an old Etonian, obsessed with good and bad form. He’s often portrayed as a dandy, in a curly Stuart wig, but mine is harder, a British military officer with a psychological scar from losing an arm. We still have flying and Neverland and pirates and mermaids but ours is not a Panto. There’s a framing device that starts and ends in a hospital in 1915 with the resonance of the lost boys as that lost generation of very young men like George Llewelyn Davies who died in the war and who with his brothers was the inspiration for the lost boys. (Barrie became their legal guardian when their parents died)

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Barrie wrote several versions; stage plays, and novels. What source material have you used?

Barrie couldn’t quite let the story go and continued to tinker with the play and the ending. We’ve cherry picked from the different versions. The 1911 novel gives you the most background. I have become obsessed by reading more about Barrie himself. His inspiration for Peter Pan springs from the death of his older brother when Barrie was eight. David was the boy who would never grow up. His mother never recovered and Barrie forever tried to fill that void.

In Barrie’s original version Hook was a minor character.

Yes Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t behave and wants to stay young forever and have adventures would have been every Edwardian parent’s nightmare. He was the baddie. Hook wasn’t a proper character just someone who came on ‘front cloth’ during the interminably long scene changes. Gerald Du Maurier who was playing Mr Darling wanted to play him and he grew into this villain that because of the power of magical storytelling is one of literature’s enduring characters. By the end the pirates want to be lost boys and have a mother. You could see Hook as a man who secretly longs for his own childhood and to have a mother. Take away the wig and the hook and there’s a child underneath.

You had an accident five years ago (Birrell was shot in the eye by a prop gun during a performance of Passion at the Donmar Warehouse). Are you fully recovered?

I am absolutely fine now. This is one of those parts where you may worry that you played it before the accident and wonder if you will struggle with such a physical part with all that sword fighting and running about. But here I am doing it!