It was the summer of 1919 when J.M. Barrie sat down to write his strange three-act ghost story Mary Rose. In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, unprecedented numbers of British families had just lost young adult children, either to the war, or to the devastating flu epidemic that followed.
Mary Rose ****
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
The veil between life and death seemed unusually thin, as distraught parents consulted spiritualists, and yearned towards those who had gone too soon.
It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that Richard Baron’s rich and thoughtful new Pitlochry production, with design by Neil Warmington, often seems more like a coda to the recent spate of productions commemorating the First World War, than a ghost story in its own right.
As in many of Barrie’s plays about lost children, though – not least his legendary 1904 success Peter Pan – there are strands to this strange, disturbing drama that go far beyond its often touching reflections on grief, and how human beings learn to live with it. In conjuring up the image of the charming Morland family and their daughter Mary Rose – whose happy childhood is interrupted by a strange event, when, aged 11, she disappears for 20 days on a tiny island in the Hebrides, only to reappear again with no memory of her absence – Barrie evokes something that chills the blood, in the sense of a young life irrevocably marked by an encounter with something unknown, which returns to claim her again in young adulthood.
Mary Rose is a troubling play, in other words, that combines a powerful wisdom about the inevitability of death and change with an insatiable, almost sickly yearning for those who are lost. Its style is old-fashioned, its mood sometimes both ghoulish and sentimental.
Yet Richard Baron’s production gives every strand of this strange period piece its full human weight, with Alan Steele repeating his performance – perfected in Pitlochry’s 2014 production of The Admirable Crichton – as an onstage J.M. Barrie steering his characters towards resolution, and Irene Allan and Ian Marr in touching form as the Morlands, a pair of ordinary Edwardians coping with something worse than grief.
And if Jon Beales’s score delivers a slightly over-emphatic mix of Celtic mysticism and strident war music, Baron and his team nonetheless succeed in creating a production of Mary Rose that not only restores Barrie’s drama to its place in history, but also allows us the space to ponder its mood and its meanings, in our own time.
*At Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 11 October