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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