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
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game