First published in The Times, Tuesday June 20 2017
JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, was afflicted in later life by writer’s cramp and could only write for any length of time with his left hand. He noted that the work he produced at this point took on an eerier quality, as though his left hand was channelling darker aspects of his personality. Mary Rose, written in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, with its portrayal of a young life frozen in time, is strikingly similar in theme to the Kirriemuir-born author’s most enduring and iconic work, though laced through with subtle chills.
Barrie himself is depicted in Richard Baron’s production by Alan Steele, reprising the role he played in the same director’s staging of The Admirable Crichton at Pitlochry a couple of years ago. Rather than deterring the play’s flow, Steele’s presence as Barrie brings animation to the action and depth to the characterisation, with Baron making liberal use of the author’s detailed, surprisingly lyrical stage directions. The play’s opening words – “All of this room’s past which can be taken away has gone” – are beautifully reflected in Neil Warmington’s set design, which boils down the country house setting to a bare frame containing a few essential items of furniture.
Frankly, the conceit of incorporating the stage directions into the production in this way does much to mask the shortcomings of Barrie’s dialogue. The second half opening scene in which the Morlands (Irene Allan and Ian Marr) reflect on their daughter’s disappearance some 25 years after the event, is rendered in such glib, emotionless, formal language as to be almost parodic.
Nonetheless, within the limitations of the text, Baron and his ensemble do much to enliven proceedings, balancing the overall tone of melancholy and ambiguity with moments of light relief, including the teasing prologue, in which the imperious housekeeper, Mrs Otery (Valerie Cutko) shows a mysterious young visitor (Elliot Fitzpatrick) around the now-abandoned manor house.
Sara Clark Downie is particularly good in the title role, happy and unaffected when we first encounter her, though increasingly weighed down by loss. The sequence in which Mary Rose is compelled by unexplained forces on the Hebridean island she and her husband are visiting to wander off and vanish into the ether is particularly effective in Baron’s production, the scene’s mix of rapture and horror recalling a line from Barrie’s most famous work, that “to die would be an awfully big adventure.”