“You can’t fix everything with a smile and some fairy dust”
The tale of Peter Pan is one which has proved timeless, but the life of its writer JM Barrie has also proved to be of enduring interest. The Hollywood film Finding Neverland dramatised (and semi-fictionalised) the relationship between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family who provided the main inspiration for the story and a big budget musical version of that interpretation has just finished its debut run at the Curve in Leicester ahead of a presumed forthcoming West End transfer. And in Peter, new American playwright Stacy Sobieski takes a different tack on the same story, looking at events from the eyes of Peter Llewelyn Davies: just a babe-in-arms when he became the namesake for Barrie’s new play, but a man who bore the weight of the limelight into which he had been thrust extremely heavily.
We first see Peter as an adult, an enigmatic figure in a darkened room setting light to a basketful of papers, and then swiftly leap back to 1987 and the beginnings of Barrie’s insinuation into the Llewelyn Davies family life. Sobieski tells this story through to the sad end of the childhood of the four boys but intercuts it with scenes from adult Peter’s life, as he meets up again with his boyhood nanny and reveals what impact being “the boy who never grew up” has had, and continues to have on his life.
It is an elegant depiction of the impact of fifteen minutes of fame in a pre-tabloid world and revisits a familiar story with a tender warmth. Jemma Hines’ Sylvia breathes genuine life into a woman almost too good to be true, paired with Tom Gordon-Gill’ handsome Arthur, an idyllic version of parenthood with an ever-expanding brood of boys. The arrival of Stewart Marquis’ twinkle-eyed Barrie is presented in an unambiguous manner and the various inspirations for the writing of Peter Pan comes in a delightful way.
But there’s darkness too which isn’t quite explored enough. The sterility of Barrie’s marriage, given plenty of room here, lends a complicating factor to his closeness to Sylvia and the boys which is never questioned here. And given the nature of Peter’s eventual demise, the whole production doesn’t really delve deeply enough into the troubled psyche of the older main character. Sobieski’s writing only takes the necessary dark turn very late on, Hutchinson’s direction only allows coy hints at these troubled depths and thus the otherwise strong Martin Richardson has little opportunity to really explore the anguish that threatens to overwhelm this man. The playful introduction of Peter Pan as a figure haunting Peter’s mind suggests a lightness to the mental torment that is ultimately at odds with its conclusion.
But there’s still something appealing about the production that comes through. David Ben Shannon’s score has a sweeping filmic quality which stimulates the elegant atmosphere, Charlie Robb’s design splits the stage effectively and also uses its height in a moving way, and Helen Fullerton’s Nanny provides a strong link between the two timeframes to present a countering point of view to Peter’s partial recollections and skewed version of the past and reminding us, if not him, that no matter how huge the issue, taking responsibility for the past is an individual act and it is always within your power to move on.