Peter Pan represents what none of us can ever be – eternally young and innocent. It’s a great premise to consider what would happen to a generation of ‘lost boys’ – J. M. Barrie’s readers – when they find themselves facing the reality of war.
Unfortunately, that’s not really what this musical is about. What promises to be an exploration of innocence and youth in the face of terrifying experience is really just an extended apology for why men sometimes behave badly, and why women should let them get away with it.
Captain George Llewellyn Davies, Barrie’s adopted son, dreams on the eve of battle of being Peter Pan, all grown up in the real world. He’s still dating Wendy, and all the Lost Boys now have office jobs. On weekends, they meet up for a Bullingdon Club-esque rampage, while their wives look on, exasperatedly drinking tea and singing, ‘it’s hard to love a Lost Boy.’
Peter himself is still essentially a child, which adult Wendy seems to find endearing, rather than disturbing. Through her, he discovers ‘grown up kissing’ (this is a joke that runs, and runs, and runs….) and what happens after marriage, and promptly proposes so that he can ‘experience sexual intercourse.’ He’s basically a sex pest, running around asking various women if he can sleep with them, because he doesn’t understand social conventions.
Wendy seems to find all this irresistible, and when their wedding fails to materialise after it emerges that Peter spent the stag night with Tinkerbell – now a down and out prostitute – Wendy is heartbroken. So heartbroken, that when Peter joins up in order to prove to her that he’s a real man, she pursues him to France by getting a job with the Red Cross. As if she would have any motivation to do so, other than to chase her cheating fiancé into a war zone.
Somewhere along the way, we discover that Michael Darling is gay, has become a music hall performer – cue hilarious in jokes about what a disreputable lifestyle choice that is! – and has a boyfriend called Geronimo. Michael and Geronimo are uncomplicatedly happy, because nothing complicated ever happens to gay men, especially in the early twentieth century. For the most part, Geronimo is largely forgotten, before being temporarily reintroduced to the plot in order to be blown to smithereens by enemy fire at some point in the second act.
Meanwhile, Wendy and the other Red Cross girls are discovering that Peter didn’t really betray her with Tinkerbell, because he’s a ‘beautiful idiot’ who doesn’t understand the difference between right and wrong. Tinkerbell, of course, knew exactly what she was doing, and is variously referred to by other characters as ‘a whore’, ‘that thing’ and ‘hardly anyone’s sugarplum these days.’ In one particularly memorable moment, as she pleads with Hook to give her back her ‘wings’, he refers to them as her ‘rancid flaps of membrane.’ Needless to say, she doesn’t live to the curtain call, but expires thanks to her heart, which is ‘only big enough for one emotion at a time.’
And just when you think the female characters can’t be any more one dimensional, Tiger Lily turns up in her knickers in the trenches. I’m not sure why exactly, but I think it had something to do with the chorus of dancing girls who appear on the soldiers’ last night before the battle, as they’re encouraged to ‘find a local girl for a final saucy night of bliss’, but warned to ‘watch out for STDs.’
Sexual politics aside, this just isn’t a very good play. The jokes feel tired, it’s difficult to follow when we’re in the dream sequence or the real world, and there’s no real character development – particularly problematic considering the theme of childhood and lost innocence.
My one star is for the cast, who all deserve praise for their skilled, energetic performances. Joseph Taylor (Michael) is particularly fun to watch, and as John Darling, Richard James-King’s comic timing produced some of the night’s few laughs. Joanna Woodward, as Tinkerbell, pulls off a genuinely affecting final song. That, and the poignant final moment where we learn Barrie’s son died in the trenches with a copy of Peter Pan in his pocket, give a glimpse of what this musical could, and should have been.
Reviewed by Sarah Day
Lost Boy plays at Londons Charing Cross Theatre until 15th February 2014. Click here for tickets.