Barry Lowe’s haunting tale of doomed love takes us from the stuffy halls of upper class English boys school Eton to the whorehouses of Montmartre in Paris and the beautiful wilderness of Scottish island Eilean Shona just as the roaring 20’s kick in.
Even as the Great War had drawn to its horrific close, and a certain recklessness and lust for life crept into society, that freedom was not extended to all, at least not publicly.
Following the slow-burning love affair between the adopted son of closeted playwright and Peter Pan scribe J. M. Barrie, the repressed and uptight Michael Llewelyn-Davies (Kieran McShane) and the decidedly unbuttoned and anarchic Rupert Buxton (Jordan Armstrong), it’s a stark reminder of the ability of a closed and unforgiving society to crush a man’s spirit.
Robert Chuter directs this spirited adaptation, narrated masterfully by an increasingly isolated and longing Barrie, portrayed with a spotless Scottish accent by a commanding Ian Rooney. The pain of a life lived in shadow seeps into the fabric of this simple yet powerful staging.
An opening scene depicting a swimming gear clad Buxton and Davies, awash with love and longing in the deep blue of reflected water, is achingly beautiful and prophetically poignant.
Then thrown into a boisterously misspent youth at Eton, Davies larks around during the Armistice fireworks with his best friends, the flamboyant Senhouse (Sean Paisley Collins) and Boothby (Matthew Werkmeister) known around school as ‘the three musketeers.’
It’s into this tight-knit group that the chaotic force of Buxton arrives, and Davies is instantly captivated. When the four find themselves down and out in Paris, Davies draws ever closer to Buxton and drifts away from his old friends, even as the first rift in their budding romance occurs.
McShane and Armstrong are compelling leads, while Collins nails Senhouse’s comic timing. Rooney steals every scene as he delivers the fluid poetry of Barrie’s yearning. Gabby Llewelyn Salter also excels as the playwright’s exceedingly likeable ex-wife, Mary Ansell, who offers salient commentary on the consequences of his smothering influence on the boys who became his wards.
Lighting, costumes and stage direction all combine to add layers of lush detail to this period piece, with the first half in particular enthralling. The second isn’t quite as tight, with not enough focus given to the realisation of Buxton and Davies’ relationship before their story suddenly wraps up offstage, but it’s a small niggle in what is a captivating piece of theatre that even now reminds us how important it is to challenge the hypocrisy and the closed-mindedness of our times that would deny something as simple as mutual love.
Stephen A Russell
The Death of Peter Pan at Chapel off Chapel, Prahran, until June 2, www.chapeloffchapel.com.au