When she auditioned for the RSC’s Wendy and Peter last year, actor Fiona Button fell in love with Ella Hickson’s fresh new adaptation.
The playwright has given the story a feminist slant by looking at Neverland from Wendy’s perspective.
“I think it’s really fascinating to ask ‘what if?’ when you read a well-known children’s story and that is what Ella has done,” says Fiona.
“She’s asked: ‘what if Wendy were to ask a few things about Neverland’ and tried to make the story as exciting and thrilling for little girls, as it is for little boys.
“Wendy is a little bit stronger in this.
“Because I loved the script so much I decided to write to Jonathan Munby, the director, and Ella and tell them why I liked it so much.
“I have never done that before. It was a long letter. I got back a lovely email which said: ‘we would love you to do it’. I couldn’t believe it. I was so pleased, so thrilled and excited.
“This has to be up there as my favourite job. It ticks all the boxes.
“It’s my first children’s show and I can’t wait to see their reaction. I hope they like it, especially the girls.”
Fiona grew up in Newbury, Berkshire, and had her very first acting job aged 10.
“I was in a production of the Wizard of Oz at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury and got paid £70. I was a Munchkin, an Oz Lady and a Winkie,” she says.
“From the age of five I used to put on plays for my mum with my older sister.”
Before training as an actress at Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Fiona studied drama at University of Birmingham.
“I loved it. I think it’s all changed a lot since. When I was there they’d just finished the Bullring and I remember that being quite the thing. I also remember eating lots of nice curries and hanging out in Selly Oak – that’s where I lived.”
Also in her year were actors Tom Riley, who is currently starring in Da Vinci’s Demons, Fiona’s good friend Jessica Ransom, who plays Morwenna Newcross in Doc Martin, and Helen in new ITV drama The Escape Artist with David Tennant, and West-End actor Peter Sandys-Clarke.
Fiona played Tess Roberts in BBC 3’s lesbian drama Lip Service, Don’s angry girlfriend Jenny in How Not To Live Your Life and Trix in BBC 1 sci-fi drama Outcasts.
Like many young children, Fiona’s first introduction to Peter Pan was the Disney film.
But the actor much preferred Steven Spielberg’s Hook with Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams.
Fiona first read J M Barrie’s children’s classic as an adult. She says: “It was really interesting to see how it has been saturated in the films. The original story is still just as relevant now.
“The play is set in 1909 and the costumes are beautiful. That’s one of my favourite things about being an actor – dressing up.
“It’s really fascinating to be back in the shoes of a child on the verge of adolescence – I can really remember what it’s like.
“One of the things I remember is game-playing – that concentration and focus that children have of making up their own world and believing it – that’s what you do as an actor.”
Birmingham-born actor Sam Swann plays Peter and has been busy training at a circus school to prepare for his energetic role.
“The adaptation we’re doing is really cool. Ella’s version is seen through Wendy’s eyes and it gives it a different perspective. It’s not so ‘jolly hockey sticks’; there’s a bit more to it. It’s really fun,” he says.
“They sent us to the Circus Space in London for a little while. It’s really humbling to see all these incredible circus performers who are so mind-bogglingly better than you. It was mostly for fitness but we did learn how to climb up-and-down silks.
“In rehearsals we’ve been doing lots of different types of flying. I was not scared when I first started, but the more I’ve done the more scared I get. We go down from the top of the gallery really fast. But we’re in safe hands.”
Sam grew up in Kings Heath and studied at Handsworth Grammar School and then Stratford College before taking a three-year acting course at LAMDA. He has worked in theatre and TV, including the RSC’s Dunsinane, ITV’s Vicious and A Winter’s Tale at London’s Unicorn Theatre.
“I was given my first job with the RSC when I was still at drama school as a boy soldier in Dunsinane at Hampstead Theatre, which was a bit like a dream come true,” he says.
“I didn’t go to a youth theatre. At school my friend Tom and I used to play different characters and accents and it grew from there. I started to take drama seriously in sixth form. I didn’t like anything else.”
Playing opposite Sam as a psychotic Captain Hook is Guy Henry, who is well-versed at playing baddies.
He’s played Minister Pius Thickness in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and aloof surgeon Henrik Hanssen in BBC 1 medical drama Holby City.
The 53-year-old returns to the RSC stage after 10 years.
“There is the old school of thought that believes the baddies have the best parts,” he says.
“What I always try to do is to find the vulnerability and the human side. I think the way Ella Hickson has written Hook he’s bad, very bad – but very sad.
“In this production he’s like a passed-it boozer – a dissipated cowboy. He doesn’t want Peter’s youth; he wants his time again.”
Father-of-one Guy decided to quit Holby City for the role.
“Henrik Hanssen on Holby City was this wonderfully, weird, eccentric character. I always liked it when people said: ‘he’s not all bad is he? There is a heart in there, somewhere’. I tried to make it a three-dimensional character.
“After three wonderful years on Holby I decided it was time to leave. I wanted to go back to theatre.
“Hook is an iconic role and that makes it nerve-wrecking to rehearse. His head is not screwed on properly – he is psychotic.
“I was flicking through a history book of previous Peter Pan productions and the brilliant Stratford actor David Troughton, who is a friend of mind, got rave reviews, so I swiftly shut the book.
“It’s fantastic to be back at the RSC. We are in the final week of rehearsals in The Courtyard theatre where they have set up a flying rig and mock-up of the Jolly Roger.
“I have never played this new theatre and saw Richard II there – which was fab. It seems to be a bigger model of The Swan. The audience are three-quarters of the way round you. It’s both big-scale and intimate.”
Guy first joined the RSC in 1991 with Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville.
The pair have remained good friends and are godfathers to each other’s sons.
“I just saw Hugh for his 50th birthday in a pub near his Sussex estate. He’s coming to see the show in February. He has a son Felix – I am his ‘good’-father, rather than his godfather,” says Guy.
“Hugh and I used to share digs at 184 Clopton Road, Stratford. There used to be a cry in The Dirty Duck at pub closing time of ‘everyone back to 184 Clopton Road’.
“I remember standing in the kitchen with Hugh in the early hours saying ‘are those your friends in the living room?’ and him saying ‘no I don’t know them, I thought they were yours’. We still have fun in The Dirty Duck.”
Guy admits at first he found it a little strange returning to the RSC as one of the older members of the company. “It’s a very young company. I felt quite nervous at first. A lot were aware that I’d worked there before. One of the Lost Boys is only 19.
“He was not even born when Hugh and I started at the RSC in 1991. I sound like an old fart.”
After all the sword-fighting and dancing in Wendy and Peter, Guy says all he wants for Christmas is a “new back and new legs”.
“Sam, who plays Peter Pan, is just a brilliant, physical performer. Terry King, our fight director, taught me stage combat at RADA from 1979 to 1981. He knows I am a slow starter but that I will get it together.
“Ella Hickson’s production is for all the family, but it is not a Christmas pantomime. We’ll still be doing it in March.
“I think it will be really beautiful but I think people will be shocked by the adaptation. It’s a whole new Peter Pan and the Darling household is not quite the same. There is a real household death.
“Neverland is a journey towards love, forgiveness and getting over grief. It’s a risk – but retains all the romance and magic and fun of the original. It will be really refreshing.”
* Wendy & Peter runs at the RSC Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from December 10 until March 2, 2014. Box office: 0844 800 1110 or www.rsc.org.uk