How Peter Pan grew up

As a riveting take on J M Barrie's classic prepares to take flight at the O2 this Christmas, Paul Taylor looks at how different adaptations of the tale have found hidden depths – and not a little tragedy

When Michael Jackson died earlier this year, the theatre director Trevor Nunn leapt into print with a brilliant article about his bizarre encounter in Sydney in 1987 with the troubled King of Pop.

Knowing that Nunn had staged a "crazily experimental" musical, Starlight Express, and wanting advice on his own stadium shows, Jackson had his "people" lure Nunn (who thought the whole thing might be a Ken Campbell prank) to a private meeting. When the Arrested One confessed to a desire to fly over the audience, Nunn revealed that he had directed Peter Pan in a groundbreaking RSC version (later revived at the National) that used adults in the children's roles and proclaimed the Tights of Man by casting a male actor as the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up rather than the traditional actress of pantomime tradition.

At this news, Jackson – whose compound was, after all, called Neverland and who had a penchant (whether platonic or otherwise) for Lost Boys – deliquesced into a puddle of desire. "Could I play Peter? Is it too late? Will you let me play Peter? All I ever wanted to do is to play Peter Pan." As a result of such contact, Nunn instinctively disbelieves the rumours of child abuse with which Jackson was later charged. He thinks that Jackson's relationship with his child chums was that of Pan to the troupe of boys who wind up in Neverland, having fallen out of their prams and off their parents' radar in J M Barrie's Edwardian play and novel in which the myth was first propagated. "J M Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, was himself suspected of child abuse," Nunn pointed out.

His article stopped short, though, of saying that creepily conjoined in Jackson were a wannabe Peter and a Barrie manqué. Like the latter, he pathologised childhood because of his own boyhood experiences. For Barrie, the warping problem was the compulsive (and unavailing) need to try to be a substitute for his mother's favourite son (who had died young and thus become a "boy eternal"). For Jackson, it was all those pre-pubertal showbiz pressures – though, happily, he did have his Wendy later on in the shape of Brooke Shields, a friend who intuitively understood him because of her own equivalent early travails and whose searching address at the memorial concert is well worth looking up on YouTube.

Like Jackson, theatre and film has never stopped being obsessed by the Pan myth. In recent years, we have had the Spielberg movie Hook, which is the consummation of the director's own private mythology, presenting a workaholic father (Robin Williams) whose need to re-bond with his inner scamp is given the added torturous twist that his memory has repressed the fabulous fact that he was once Peter Pan himself. Naked and evasive, richly wry and psychologically awry, that film demonstrates that all Pan-centred afterthoughts are influenced by the zeitgeist and its preoccupations – here the guilt of neglectful parents who have time-consuming professions in our tunnel-vision toil culture. And there have been a slew of theatrical reinterpretations – radiating latterly from the influential Nunn/Caird version mentioned above which firmly established that this adventure yarn, with its pirates and mermaids and paste-up children's literature island, is also a tragedy that can leave adults in tears at the end. You would be less than human if you did not feel the pull of Peter Pan's desire to fend off the restrictions of adulthood; you would be even less than human, though, if you could not see that what he sees as restrictions are also rich capacities – the capacity, say, to pity the lonely boy who is barred from the feast of family life by a window through which he cannot always be permitted to fly.

This Christmas, the pre-eminent Peter Pan is the one which is to alight in a 1,300 capacity tent in the Meridian Gardens at the O2. Adapted by Tanya Ronder and performed "in the round" with a 360-degree projected scenic design by Bill Dudley, this version had a successful trial flight this summer in Kensington Gardens and was reviewed very favourably on these pages by Michael Coveney. Ronder's version is excellent in the deft, darting way it adverts to the underlying darkness without, for a moment, delaying the tongue-in-cheek swashbuckling of the surface or its seemingly "sorted" sentiment. The Edinburgh Festival this summer played host to an adaptation by the American company Mabou Mines, which has been a work-in-progress for 13 years. Entitled Peter and Wendy, it betokens the increasing (semi-feminist) interest in Wendy as the real protagonist of the myth.

As is pointed out by the prolific playwright David Greig – who is developing a Peter Pan for the excellent National Theatre of Scotland which will tour and fetch up at the Barbican in the spring of next year – it is Wendy who goes on a journey of emotional development, not the wilfully unchanging eponymous hero. Accordingly, in the Mabou Mines version, Wendy – played by a middle-aged actress – was the only human presence and she ventriloquised the voices of the other characters, who were played by Bunraku-style puppets.

It's perhaps no coincidence that Ronder's take on the myth begins with the Darling children playing a game of having babies, with Wendy going into what she conceives to be labour and producing a child. "Mrs Darling, I'm pleased to inform you that you are the proud owner of a new baby!" declares John in a manner that both re-establishes their inexperience (to be the "owner" of a baby makes it sound like, say, a toy rocking horse) and at the same time intimates the pressures to be protective beyond her years that will soon assail Wendy. Ronder points out that there's a story by Barrie called "The Horrible Mother" which suggests that originally he had intended Mrs Darling, not her husband, to transmogrify into Captain Hook.

Barrie's volatile, immature relationship to his material will be implicit but marked in Greig's National Theatre of Scotland version, which will also emphasise the Scottishness of the author's imaginative associations with fairies and elves. The author spent his childless adulthood projecting his psychic needs on the Llewelyn Davies family of five boys (which is the subject of the fine Johnny Depp movie Finding Neverland) and Greig feels that the texts of Peter Pan show revealing discrepancies between the need to find an official version and the eruptions of sometimes embarrassing or ecstatic inspiration that come when you are improvising stories to children in private. The further complication with Barrie was that he understood children only in a restricted and self-referring sense. There is also the fact that a lot of the myth is dream-work, with Barrie and the notion of parenthood dispersed amongst the characters.

I rather fear that my children would think of me as a cross between the competitively childish Mr Darling and the elusive Peter Pan, with perhaps a dash of the crocodile (they have always been able to hear me coming). A combination of Nana the dog and of Captain Hook would be a great deal healthier. It's just this kind of yeasty challenge in the yarn that will, however, ensure that Peter Pan will, like its hero and in all its forms, remain forever young.

Peter Pan, Meridian Gardens, London SE10 (0844 847 2517) 1 December to 10 January

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London