J M Barrie: The man who wouldn't grow up

As J M Barrie's classic ghost story Mary Rose comes to the London stage, Paul Taylor explores how arrested development only added to his powers as a playwright

Alfred Hitchcock had a lifelong obsession with Mary Rose, the haunting and achingly strange 1920 play by J M Barrie, and in the 1960s he commissioned a screenplay that opened it up but retained much of the original dialogue.

He revealed his fixation in a book of interviews with his fellow film-maker, François Truffaut, in which he spoke piningly about Barrie's stage drama and joked that it must have been written into his contract with Universal Pictures that Mary Rose was the one movie he should not be allowed to make.

We shall see later precisely why the piece had a powerful attraction for Hitchcock. It is enough to note here that his efforts to film this (by turns) whimsical, fey, creepy and overwhelmingly poignant work ended in failure and to register that the very infrequent revivals in the theatre – which include a 1970s staging with the magically cast Mia Farrow in the title role and a recent 2007 outing on Broadway – have met with mixed reactions, attesting to the play's capacity to arouse embarrassment and scepticism as well as to induce heartbreak of a psychologically searching kind.

But now, at London's Riverside Studios, there's a freshly pioneered account of this undervalued masterwork by DogOrange/Midnight (12am) Productions. Matthew Parker's interpretation has the advantage of having passed the test with the handful of reviewers who saw an earlier embodiment of it last year on the outer reaches of the fringe at the tiny Brockley Jack. That version has been carefully reconsidered and is presented on a much larger scale and with significant changes to production team and cast. The elusive Mary Rose is to be played by Jessie Cave, who was Lavender Brown in the early Harry Potter movies and who appeared as Thomasina, the moving and unwitting young maths genius in a recent West End revival of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. The forthcoming premiere of this show invites some reflections on the unjust neglect in which the bulk of its author's extraordinary oeuvre now languishes.

Barrie (1860-1937), the Scottish weaver's son who rose to be a baronet, was a prolific author but these days he is increasingly known only for the perennial Christmas favourite Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up (1904), an adventure story that is a matchless depiction of the drive towards – and the human deprivations occasioned by – the desire to remain a child forever. This is a huge pity because Barrie is one of the most distinctive and compelling voices in 20th-century drama, his work demonstrably an influence on later generations of dramatists. Take a piece such as the yearning Dear Brutus (1917), which sets romantic hypotheticalities against wartime realities. Pointedly invoking A Midsummer Night's Dream, the location is the moonstruck garden during an Edwardian house-party where Lob, the ancient host, turns out to be Puck enjoying a freakishly extended lease of life.

At the latter's recommendation, the guests – who include an alcoholic artist married to a childless snob and a wanton womaniser and his mistreated spouse – take a walk in an enchanted wood where they get lost, encounter the alternative lives that could have been theirs, and return chastened to have discovered that they are the victims not of Fate but of their own innate propensity for choosing the wrong path.

The most Barrie-esque of these moonlit, out-of-time trysts, is that between the hard-drinking painter (nudgingly named Dearth) and Margaret, the daughter-that-never-was, who is revealingly described in the stage directions as "a boyish figure of a girl not yet grown to womanhood... [and]... aged the moment when you like your daughter best". Dearth is ablaze with happiness and health and the long resulting duologue is torrent of archly worded gush – and emotional over-compensation – about a shared past that never happened ("I wore out the point of my little finger over that dimple") and a future that is still-born in the illusory bud. Then, in a devastating stroke, the "reunited" pair are disturbed by an unhappy vagrant, who is Dearth's wife, now only faintly recognised by him since she hails from her own alternative existence. The idyll unravels, with Margaret, like someone abandoned in a game of hide-and-seek, wailing after "Daddikins" that "I do not want to be a might-have-been!"

You can judge from this scene just how unmistakably Barrie's work is the forerunner of J B Priestley's time-plays and Alan Ayckbourn's dramatisations of the role that chance and the crucial wrong turning, taken heedlessly – and, except as a thought-experiment in a stage work, irrevocably – play in our lives. It also exemplifies the disarmingly uncensored way in which Barrie was prepared to make theatre out of his own private hang-ups and compulsions. Mary Rose is particularly well suited to be the catalyst for a discussion of the life-beyond-Pan dimension of this author's back catalogue. It manages to have a profound and fugitive personality of its own and also has the closest affinities with the author's most famous play. The "boy who would not grow up" becomes the 18-year-old girl who remains emotionally arrested through marriage, motherhood and then, after her death, through life as a ghost in the haunted parental home where the play begins and ends.

These are the two stage works most eloquently conditioned by the trauma that shaped Barrie's attitude to life and relationships: the death in a skating accident two days before his 14th birthday of his brother Michael. Barrie was six at the time and, in struggling to replace this favourite in his mother's affections, he effectively stopped the clock on key features of his own psychological and sexual life (his marriage to the actress Mary Ansell remained unconsummated). Yet he continued to develop imaginatively with the result that his peculiar predicament gives his art its preternaturally acute purchase on such visceral subjects as the penalties of willed and unwilled immaturity, the agony of loss, and the painful lure of speculative what-might-have-beens.

You know how just a touch of frost can stop the growth of a plant yet leave it blooming," asks her mother as she muses about Mary Rose's ethereal and permanently tomboy nature. The touch of frost in this case is Mary Rose's capacity for instinctive, involuntary surrender to the spirits who tempt her to opt out of time and its natural processes on a kind of existential sabbatical and then return to a world that has cruelly changed in her absence with no immediate knowledge of what has passed. She first demonstrated this talent for hearkening to "the call" when she was 11 years old, going unaccountably Awol for 20 days during a family holiday on a Hebridean island that is shunned by the superstitious locals and nicknamed the "Island That Likes to be Visited". She does so again when she revisits the spot with her husband a baby boy and this time her absence from this world and its duties lasts a quarter of a century.

The appeal of the play for Alfred Hitchcock will have become clear. The great film-maker had a compulsive taste for unattainable blondes and Mary Rose, notwithstanding matrimony and motherhood (it's easier to think of her playing hide-and-seek with her boyish hubby than having sex with him) is, from one perspective, the ultimate in essential unattainability. She's a Hitchcock Blonde with an unconscious "Peter Pan" complex and an intermittent troubled sense, like the shadow of a cloud floating over a sunlit lawn, that something is missing in her.

Barrie wrote plays outside the orbit of his primal preoccupations – comedies puckishly subversive of the status quo such as The Admirable Crichton (1902), about a butler who rises to the status of natural leader while stranded with an aristocratic family on a desert island and the mildly feminist What Every Woman Knows (1906). But – as this enterprising revival of Mary Rose looks set to prove – his art is often at its deepest when it leaves an audience unable to decide whether the play is altogether aware of how extensive an emotional striptease its author is performing or whether it is fixing with a stare that dares you to question its canny control. Sharply different in so many respects, this is another area where there is an overlap between Barrie and the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

The main alternative to Peter Pan that is on the horizon is the projected stage musical adaptation of the film Finding Neverland, the charming but rather sanitised and sugary movie, starring Johnny Depp, about Barrie's relationship with the tragic Llewelyn Davies family. By rights, of course, we should, like DogOrange/ Midnight (12am) Productions, be vigorously rediscovering the richness of his theatrical repertoire.

'Mary Rose', Riverside Studios, London W6 (020 8237 1111) to 28 April

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

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

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
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).
books
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
film
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’

Film

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

TV

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

Film

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
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.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    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?