Thursday, March 7, 2019

...And Finding Neverland



I had the pleasure this past weekend to see Finding Neverland, a musical play, at the National Theatre in DC. I say it was a pleasure because it was, though there were weak points; I went in mentally prepared for wild inaccuracies. After all, I have seen the movie with Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie. Going in with the mentality that I should enjoy it for the echoes of the true story, for the music, and for itself rather than for what it *could* or maybe even *should* be, I came away pleased. I also came away with a nifty fridge magnet. (I'm serious--I collect magnets from places I go and have covered my closet door with them.)

It was a rainy, cold day in DC, just a few degrees too warm for snow. I left myself plenty of time to get to the theater because I was taking Metro and, well, Metro sucks. (As it happens, I got to the station just as a train was pulling out and had to wait twenty bloody minutes for the next train. And you wonder, Metro, why ridership is down?) I got to the Metro Center station plenty early as a result. I decided to exit into the Macy's and wandered around the shoe department for a bit. Then, about half an hour before the show, I decided to walk to the theater. It was only two blocks away. I apparently got there just as they were opening the doors to let people in. I took a quick look at the merch and decided on that magnet. The t-shirts were, of course, overpriced and while they were cute I wasn't drawn to them. The CD was expensive, too, and I wasn't sure I would like the music (as it turns out, I was pretty unenthusiastic about the music, so I am okay with the non-purchase).

I set off for my seat in the balcony. "Up to the fourth floor," I was told. And it was most definitely on the fourth floor, and there was plenty of space--and stairs--between each floor. I was out of breath by the time I reached the top of the theater. I made my way to my seat down some rather steep steps. The upside of the steep stairs was that my view wasn't obstructed by the head of the person in front of me, and although I was pretty high up, I could see the *whole stage* quite well. I've been to plenty of shows where I was lower/closer and could see only half the show because of the big honking heads of the people in front of me. A few other things to note about not-the-show: there were a lot of kids (this was a matinee), which I loved; it was very warm up there in the balcony; the show wasn't entirely sold out, but it seemed like a pretty full house with a very receptive audience.

The show began with a light dancing around in the air in front of the stage--Tinkerbell. This was accomplished, I believe, by a see-through scrim draped in front of the stage, which the light was shined against. It was one of many really effective effects (see what I did there?).

We then open with Barrie addressing the crowd directly. (Quibble #1--and I will stop counting after one because my quibbles will be LEGION--was the use of "James" all the time; he was "Barrie" or "Jimmy" or sometimes "Jim", and later he was "Uncle Jim", "the Bart" [for Baronet], or Sir James if you're nasty.) Barrie says something about Neverland or imagination or whatever (watch out or you might get stuck in the sappiness in this play), then says he will tell us about how Peter Pan came to be. He tells us that it began a year ago in Kensington Gardens.

Record scratch.

Me: What?

The play: goes on without me.

Me: Oh fine, wtf ever.

For the record, it was 1897 when Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies boy. And another quibble there: they pronounced the name wrong! That's not a historical quibble, it's . . . it's just proper pronunciation! It would be like pronouncing the g in Edinburgh! Llewelyn is pronounced a bit like "you-Ellen", NOT like "Lou-Ellen". It's Welsh, hence the ll being pronounced like a y, roughly.

Anyway, it's the opening scene and four boys come barreling in. Major issue #1: the number of boys. Poor Nico! He's completely missing from this reality. But, having seen the movie, I knew that this would be the case. Another thing I noticed is that they seem to have rearranged the birth order, though it isn't clear; it seems as if they have Peter as the second child instead of the third. In any case, while Barrie tries to think, the incorrect-number-of-boys-in-the-wrong-birth-order jump and cavort in his general vicinity (rude!). Then their mother, Sylvia, rushes in. Another quibble. Sylvia was not there when Barrie met George (and it was George he met first). The boys were with their nurse; that was the standard way a middle class family would behave; the nurse would take the boys to the park. It wasn't until a New Year's party some months later that Sylvia (and Arthur!) met Barrie and they put two-and-two together and realized that her boys were the boys that Barrie had been playing with in Kensington Gardens.

But in this reality, the nurse, Mary Hodgson, isn't there, and neither is Arthur (major issue #2). This is, again, like the movie. How much neater that Arthur, the father, is already dead! His absence also rather accounts for the lack of Nico. Here, Sylvia is already widowed. We see her having fun with the boys and encouraging them to be pirates. There's some singing and dancing and stuff.

Now I'm trying to recall whether the stuff with Frohman and the theater comes before or after the Kensington Gardens scene. It doesn't matter a whole lot. What matters is that Barrie is under pressure from that hard-nosed Charles Frohman, his producer. Aside from him being an American, they got Frohman totally wrong. He was a producer, but he was Barrie's American producer, not the London producer. They were great friends, and he was a risk-taking, cheerful dreamer. In this version, he is pressuring Barrie to write him a play, or else, it's implied, he (Barrie) will be fired! That's not how theater worked; he wasn't the in-house writer who could be sacked. And he was pretty famous at this point, so he was given the benefit of the doubt. In the case of Peter Pan, which was a wild departure, he actually offered Frohman another, safer play in case Pan failed. But, yeah, no, he wasn't under that kind of pressure to write this play. And to be clear, it took him many years to develop the idea and then write the play.

We are introduced to Mary Barrie, JM Barrie's wife, and to Emma du Maurier, Sylvia's mother. We also meet "Lord Cannan". Yikes, where to start. Clearly, we needed the "disapproving characters" for both Barrie and Sylvia, and we needed the "uptight snob" character. Mary, Emma, and Gilbert would have to do, I guess. But, ooph, what caricatures they become! It's insulting to the real people, and it's pretty simplistic writing, but, uh, I guess it's a musical so that's fine? Anyway, to set the record straight, Mary wasn't a snob or a sniping harridan. She was a frustrated wife; she seems to have loved Barrie, but he didn't return that love in the way she wished. Years after the play premiered, she was caught in an affair with Gilbert Cannan, a young novelist friend of Barrie's. There was a messy divorce, and it was made public that Barrie was impotent. Pretty nasty stuff.

As for Emma du Maurier. She was not particularly well-off, and she was not as exacting as she appears here. She did worry about her daughter, who had to raise five boys alone after Arthur died. But of course for the purposes of this play, that's blown way out of proportion. A lot of her disapproval given to Emma came in real life from Mary Hodgson, the nurse.

Barrie's relationship with the boys, especially Peter, inspires him the write Peter Pan. A lot of the elements seem to just appear fully-formed in his mind, which is a bit misleading as far as the truth and as far as how the creative process really works. We have a ton of input from Peter, who contributes the name Tinkerbell, for instance. This is major issue #3. Peter was not favored. Look, I get it. We cut it down to four kids because five was way too many. And even four is a lot, so we focused on one. And Peter Pan is, after all, named after this boy Peter (in reality, Peter Pan got his start when the real-life Peter was a baby and Barrie told his older brothers, George and Jack, that Peter could fly, like all babies; he didn't ask Peter's permission to use his name). Just ask the real Peter Llewelyn Davies--he'd tell you just what a curse that name was.

It was, in fact, George who inspired most of the ideas and stories for Peter Pan. He was Barrie's childish muse. He was a charming boy, good-looking and friendly. He was also, like other little boys, "heartless". Barrie picked up on the particular mood of boyhood from George, and to some extent Jack and Peter. About the time of the play, he became more involved with young Michael, who was four when the play premiered. Michael inspired alterations to the play the year after it was first staged, including the famous scene where Peter says that to die would be an awfully big adventure. Peter, from the beginning, had a more fraught relationship with Barrie and Peter Pan, and would do so for the rest of his life.

Anyway, we have some big production numbers here with pirates and with the theater company putting on Peter Pan, who all think Barrie has gone crazy. This is not too far from the actual reaction of the actual theater company that first put on Peter Pan. Everyone thought Barrie was off his head. It was a play for children (not totally unheard of, but unusual) that called for extraordinary production values (flying people! fairy lights!). It had Indians and pirates and a dog that acted as a nanny. Everyone was wary, but I'm sure they weren't quite as outraged and shocked as is portrayed in the play. They were all actors; they did their job as they were asked to do them.

We have a scene where Peter puts on his own play. Sylvia gets ill partway through, and they have to stop. Peter is very upset and starts tearing things down. Sylvia tells Barrie she doesn't want to see doctors because she doesn't want to put the boys through what they went through with Arthur's protracted death. The troubling truth is that it appears almost the opposite really happened. Sylvia was ill (cancer), but everyone around her kept the truth from her.

Before she passes, we have a lovely scene of the entire acting troop putting on Peter Pan for her in her bedroom. We get bits of the play interspersed with commentary from Peter. Peter Pan is flying around, and there is great use of bursts of glitter and a light for Tinkerbell. This was all really well-done. Oh, and as part of this play, and the actual Peter Pan play, there is an actor dressed up as the dog Nana. The real dog on the stage, playing the role of the historical dog Porthos, actually trotted up to that actor in his dog suit and sniffed his butt. That was not planned, and it was absolutely hilarious.

Right after the play is performed in her bedroom, Sylvia passes away. It is a beautiful scene. Sylvia is dressed all in white, and she's all alone on the stage with a spotlight on her, the wind whipping around her. There's a burst of glitter, which sounds a bit tacky but was beautiful as it swirled around the stage in the wind. Peter Pan came to the window, beckoning her to fly. She climbs out the window. Then her shawl is let go by Wendy in the wings, and the wind catches it. It swirls around and around and around in an eerie dance.

A few historical notes: the entire cast did perform the play in a bedroom for a member of the Llewelyn Davies family, but it was Michael, not Sylvia. And Sylvia didn't die until six years after the play premiered. By that point, George was 16. We see Frohman celebrating, and of course he did, but he was in America. Also, as an epilogue, Frohman was killed when the Lusitania was sunk during World War I.

After Sylvia's death, we have a bit of an epilogue in which it's all but stated that Barrie adopts the boys and shares the duty of raising them with Emma. Which . . . nope. I honestly can't recall whether Emma was even still alive at this point. The boys actually stayed in their home, with Mary Hodgson looking after them. Barrie became their official-unofficial guardian. They had several aunts and uncles, but none of them were able to support five children. Barrie had been in their lives for well over ten years at this point and was probably closer to them than the aunts and uncles anyway (they called him Uncle Jim). Importantly, he was fabulously wealthy and could provide for them. There was a lengthy clash between him and Mary Hodgson over the boys, but Barrie won in the end; he more or less raised Nico and Michael. George and Jack were old enough to be largely self-dependent, especially given that they were away at boarding school much of the time. Peter was somewhere in between, I guess. But Emma, at least, was not really a part of raising the boys.

And of course, where they end is FAR from the end of the story. What I wouldn't have given to have them address, in any way whatsoever, the boys' futures. There's a brief moment when George says he likes a girl, but that's about it as far as hinting at the idea that the boys do actually grow up. Yes, there are limitations to the format of a play, but I think you could also play with it--have older actors kind of walk on and off stage while Barrie narrates what happened to the brothers. But I think the future is too depressing for this play, which is all about the power of imagination and so forth.  The movie had the same problem, but there it was even more egregious; the movie could have very, very easily added title cards at the end explaining what happened to the boys. That sort of thing is par for the course in films based on real people. So why not here? 

A few notes on the play as a musical. As I mentioned, I found the music itself pretty forgettable. Mostly, the production was carried by a lot of running and jumping rather than by the tunes themselves. The actor playing Barrie was, I think, a little weak. He also spoke like an American actor trying to speak like an Englishman. Which is a problem, because Barrie was Scottish (though admittedly he seems to have spoken something close to Received British Pronunciation). The kids were all wonderful. The song the four of them did together was fantastic. They were each super-talented, and some of them are super young to be so accomplished. The boy who played Peter blew me away, actually. I got a little teary eyed at one point, thinking of the real Peter. This boy had a great voice and did a great job with the acting. I have to say, their outfits looked more like 1930's or 1940's than 1900's, but whatever.

And that is all. I enjoyed myself immensely, and I would recommend going to see this if it ever comes to your area. But please be aware that it takes massive liberties with the history and leaves off most of the story. I suggest going and reading a book about it if you're interested. Don't read any of those quick, annoying articles titled something like, "The True, Dark Story Behind Peter Pan". Those articles are usually rife with errors and tend to interpret everything as evidence of child abuse. You'd do much better to dive into the true, complex, fascinating story.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

The Lost Boys by Andrew Birkin
The Lost Boys miniseries from the '70's, with Ian Holm as Barrie (hard to find but SO good)
Peter and Alice, a play about when Peter Llewelyn Davies, as a grown man in the publishing industry, met Alice Liddel, who inspired Alice in Wonderland (these two really did meet).



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