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

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