Christopher Harley's fascinating 'post-Peter Pan' premise deserves more stage time than it gets in this premiere production
This new play by Australian writer and composer Christopher Harley (Blood Bank) explores the dark future of J.M Barrie’s Darling clan, forever changed by their adventures with Peter Pan.
Here our protagonist isn't the boy who never grew up. Rather, Harley has centred his attentions on John, the one with the top hat who was mad about pirates. Now firmly an adult, John (Simon London, with a gentleness betrayed by desperation) seems mild. He’s a history teacher who is a bit lonely, his sister valiantly trying to set him up with men, but it soon becomes clear that he's still hung up on that fateful night when Peter Pan appeared at his nursery window.
His obsession is only growing, yet his family needs him more and more. Wendy (a pragmatic Emma Palmer, largely relegated to playing the designated ‘nurturing woman’) and her husband Richard (a slick Stephen Multari) want to sell the family house; their father George (Robert Alexander) is in a nursing home and rarely cogent. And where is Michael Darling, the youngest sibling? Still, John’s attention is elsewhere: he’s sure the time is coming, finally, for Peter to return.
It's this building tension that drives the play, directed by Iain Sinclair as something between a thriller and elegiac portrait of family trauma. Alicia Clements’ production design, in tandem with sound and lighting by Katelyn Shaw and Daniel Barber, conjure a dreamlike, seemingly perpetual twilight, with breezes causing the curtains to flutter and part as though in anticipation of an otherworldly arrival.
With a 55-minute running time, the play over-promises and under-delivers. The seeds of a thoughtful, moving work are evident in the script, which seems to want to tackle questions about how families cope through unbearable times. Instead, the play is short and therefore occasionally perfunctory and expository rather than dramatically rich. Wendy's relationship problems and George’s health are more thin, cheaply emotional triggers than they are moving explorations of the fault lines of a shared disaster; the bones of a deeper story are present in their troubles, but these subplots are superficial, well beyond the reach of the show's capacity.
A longer show could shape Wendy and George into fleshed out characters, and have George’s illness feel poignant rather than merely convenient with a side of emotionally manipulative. A longer running time might also help the play's eventual descent into something darker, and the sudden introduction of a new player (Fraser Crane), feel more earned and more rounded.
Harley’s writing is evocative without feeling forced, and there’s much to like about the play – he balances the play’s creeping tension (snippets of news bulletins in the background escalate our unease) with the worn-in familiar shorthand of Wendy and John’s easy back and forth, and, thankfully, John is immensely likable. Sinclair elevates the script with sharp and empathetic direction, finding pockets in the story for every supporting character to have at least one moment where they step off the sidelines and grab our focus and often our hearts. But the work has more potential than it reaches in its debut production here at the Eternity Playhouse.
In the final moments of the piece – when the play sharply veers into a twist that invites the audience to question what is actually real, and what isn't, about the John we've been getting to know all night – Sinclair and Clements orchestrate a breath-taking technical effect. It's an arresting ending, and it almost seems to give the play the gravitas it clearly wants to have. But the writing just doesn't dig deep enough, and the effect, while striking, remains nothing more than a gimmick.