Peter Pan in Scarlet, by Geraldine McCaughrean

Nightmare comes to Neverland
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The Independent Culture

Peter Pan the play drew on those favourite, extended imaginary games JM Barrie shared with child friends during one golden Edwardian summer. Such games are unique to childhood: richly conceived, often violent, and easily switched off. This arbitrary fantasy atmosphere was incorporated into his theatrical masterpiece. His novel of the play, published later, was limp by comparison.

Now Geraldine McCaughrean, one of the most gifted and continuously astonishing writers for children anywhere, has been entrusted with its official sequel. Half her royalties will be directed towards the Great Ormond Street Hospital, just as Barrie decreed during his own lifetime.

If the intention was to create another goldmine, the hospital trustees should probably have turned to a bestseller like Anthony Horowitz or Eoin Colfer. But if the idea was to follow in Barrie's footsteps, then McCaughrean was the obvious choice. Skilled at pastiche and with a feeling for the comic and mysterious possibilities implicit in words and phases, she has taken Barrie's story into new dimensions while still sticking to the basics of the original plot.

When her Peter starts behaving increasingly like his enemy Captain Hook, this was anticipated by Barrie. Peter's famous coldness towards mothers earns him boos from young audiences today. In McCaughrean's version, Peter is shown as a wounded figure, like all children who profess to hate loving parents. Refusing to grow up, in both works, is presented as a personal tragedy.

Where McCaughrean most separates from Barrie is in losing a sense of shared fun. In the original Peter Pan, every character, adult or child, was infantilised, with Nana the Newfoundland dog easily the most mature being on the stage. All this served to liberate the play from the strong parental belief in 1904 that literature and the theatre should unfailingly try to set a good example to the young. Instead, audiences were presented with a celebration of everything that makes childhood magical as well as irresponsible, at least in the mind.

In McCaughrean's version, the 1914-18 war, where many in the original audiences would have lost their lives, rumbles in the background. Flying is still there, but the journey taken by Peter and his followers is more darkly dangerous, while Hook is meanly underhand rather than flamboyantly wicked. Doings in her Neverland occasionally suggest Lord of the Flies. Food for thought, certainly, but perhaps no longer games.

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