Left – Jordan Armstrong and Kieran McShane. Cover – (l-r) Benjamin Byrne, Gabby Llewelyn Salter and Kieran McShane. Photos – Marc Opitz
The tale of Peter Pan is firmly ingrained in our childhood, both as a whirling reverie of possibilities entertained by dreamers that hoped to escalate past the normality of a second grader, and a quiet guide to the frightening road of adulthood ahead. In our later years, the appeal still exists. The chance to simply unanchor yourself from the mundanity of half-lived dreams is no less tantalising than it was before. Yet other responsibilities take pride of place over the near stubborn disinterest Barrie's most famous character displayed in self-sufficiency in a regulated world.
Despite these impossible ideals, the real life story of JM Barrie's adopted sons and inspirations of Peter Pan are far removed from the neverending spiral of dreamers set free from the social aspirations of adolescents of the time. It's this that playwright Barry Lowe focuses upon; the loss of innocence in boys who ignore the lesson his most famous character preached, and the half-lived dreams that ultimately let us down.
The play's framework feels not unlike a documentary. Set in the 1920s and interspersed with monologues from J.M Barrie (Ian Rooney), Boothby (Matthew Werkmeister), Senhouse (Sean Paisley Collins) and Nico Davies (Ben Byrne) to contextualise their distinct reactions towards Michael's encounter with Rupert Buxton (Jordan Armstrong). Director Robert Chuter takes great pains to ensure that the emotional beats are strung and carefully plotted as a build up for the historical deaths recreated - but can lack intense emotional payoff. While Lowe's network of reactive monologues work successfully as a demonstration of how reality can be rewritten, or lost loves can be memorialised in the searching for answers, the elusiveness of Michael's psyche and his death creates a disconnection between audience and actor: a level of voyeurism is found in the candid recollections of the characters, or indeed the intimate moments.
Coupled with the minimal turn of the century lighting and minimal, albeit lush furniture, at times a sense of space or time is lost. The related messy blocking does little to convey a sense of character or assist an understanding of context, just as the quick transition of lighting and sound feels muddled and leaves little chance for moments of silence and quiet dialogue to truly resonate.
Similarly, the characters feel occasionally one-note: the strength of the cast pushes a richer development that's slow and steady in it's unfolding. It's towards the end of the first act that the play and it's representation of faceted historical figures begins to find it's legs - and they're strong. McShane plays a convincingly sympathetic Michael Davies, torn between adulthood and the naive idealism of an adolescence. His controlled physicality belies both the self-aware uncertainty and eagerness of a man on the cusp of something, yet it's in his raw pleas when the inner conflict can be seen just below the surface, that he excels. It's difficult not to be charmed by the innocence he exudes.
As the antithesis to Michael, Armstrong lends a charisma and commanding, yet not imposing physicality to what is an almost elusive ideal. Despite the witty material he breezes through. It is again the brief moments of vulnerability that round out Buxton from being solely a manipulative, confident figure. Armstrong shines with a wordless hopelessness that all those who've been through the turbulent passage of adulthood can relate to. Paisley Collins as Senhouse injects some much needed comedy gold in rapid-fire banter, though just as easily inhabits a more contemplative figure whose modulated voice comes to suggest a weight he bears for all his determinedly aloof charm. The knowledge of unfolding tragedy can be found in those eyes, and Paisley Collins appropriately steps down the boisterousness of the youth in favour of the languid pace of one still unsure of what could be done to change a social climate.
It is, however Matthew Werkmeister in the role of Roger Boothby that bursts with all the unbridled conflict and tempered sorrow of a lost man. Baron Boothby later became known for his bisexuality and fight for homosexual rights, and accordingly, the facets of a boy struggling to come to terms with his own affection for Michael despite common decency are played with tender reserve. It's his growing stiffness despite the youthful arrogance initially seen - the addition of glasses is a clever touch. It's the desperation beneath his harsh words that could break hearts. In what is no doubt the highlight of the character's monologues, despite Rooney's ability to deliver pithy anecdotes, Boothby reflects upon the unravelling of his friendship with Michael like a contextualisation of his later political decisions. There's no doubting the talents of the cast, nor their ability to bring more humanity to in their downplaying of emotions or underlying tension that could ravage the body. It's much as if a mirror was held to the lives they lived.
This too, could explain the abrupt climax that will leave some dissatisfied with closure. There are no stage directions for death after all, no herald or fanfare or dramatic emotional score, but simply the players left behind to put the pieces together. Still, the implied memorialisation of Michael Davies in play and the thoughts of the cast reinforces the one element that's spoken of: love, love that causes us to recall and try to rationalise what happened and how an act could have been stopped, and indeed what drives us to decisions that can't be taken back. This is the death of Peter Pan's innocence in a social context, but this is not the death of another kind of innocent ideal of ties that bind. Maybe this is how we're all Peter Pans: in our desire to fly before the world clips our wings. The cast burn with all the longing they know they will one day be forced to put aside.
To the restless audience member; it's certainly worth waiting for the beauty to start, no matter how shaky the initial first moments may appear. To the one-time viewer; Chuter's carefully handled play is worth revisiting if not for the pithy script of relatable sentiment, then for the beautifully controlled performances of a cast that bring the right amount of pathos to a tale we know so little of.
Fly-On-The-Wall Theatre presents
THE DEATH OF PETER PAN
by Barry Lowe
Directed by Robert Chuter
Venue: Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran VIC
Dates: 22 May – 02 June 2013
Times: Wednesday – Saturday 8:00pm, Sunday 6:30pm (not Monday)
Tickets: $30.00 – $28.00 + transaction fee
Bookings: chapeloffchapel.com.au | 03 8290 7000