As I found out when watching a student production of Dear Brutus last year, there is more to author and playwright J M Barrie than Peter Pan. Even then, the story of The Boy Who Never Grew Up – as originally written, rather than as the Disney version and numerous panto versions have painted – seems to have themes which Barrie’s other plays also share, mixing comic observations of middle class life with supernatural occurrences.
Here the story is centred around the Morland family, whose daughter Mary Rose once disappeared on a family holiday to the Hebrides, reappearing three weeks later with no knowledge that she had even been away. As a dashing young sailor approaches her parents to ask for her hand in marriage, they divulge the mystery that they have kept secret from her. And, several years later, the couple return to the island, Mary still unaware of the episode from her past – when the island starts calling to her again…
This is an intensely atmospheric production, with the design adding bucketloads to the sense of unease. Walls are constructed of thin shards, allowing spirits to flit in and out, while Gary Bowman’s lighting – from underfloor beams poking out through floorboards, to the absence of light as a rundown house is opened up to a new visitor – is truly stunning. And the story itself unfolds with enticing intrigue – it’s easy to see why Alfred Hitchcock was reportedly interested in adapting Barrie’s play for a film. Sound, too, plays an important part, with a mix of onstage whispers and atmospheric recorded audio generally working well.
At times, Barrie’s dialogue just sparkles. The mix of comedy – mostly concentrating on expectations of class – and chills tends to balance out nicely. In addition, director Matthew Parker choreographs an ensemble of spirits, invading the stage in sound and motion, in a manner that adds much to the initial mood of creepiness and mystery.
However, as the play progresses, and particularly in the second act, there is a tendency for scenes to drag, and here the addition of spectral dancers only serves to add to the lack of pace. It’s not helped that, despite a number of sterling performances – most notably Maggie Robson’s Mrs Morland and Joanna Watts’ Mrs Otery – the title role, as played by Jessie Cave, lacks any of the warmth necessary to make the play’s more fantastical elements as believable as they could be.
Faults aside, there are some genuinely atmospheric moments that make this an enjoyable piece of theatre. And hopefully it may prompt further examination of Barrie’s other plays, for on the strength of this and Dear Brutus, there is much to be enjoyed in his works.