Tim Cornwell: This transplant of Neverland is a bridge too far

THE premiere of Peter Pan, the National Theatre of Scotland's much-hyped new take on the boy who wouldn't grow up, was one of the social events of the theatre season.

Guests at Glasgow's King's Theatre this week ranged from the head of Glasgow School of Art and the music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to most of Scotland's critics and arts writers.

The elements were promising for a big night out, and a milestone NTS production. The director, John Tiffany, of The Straits and Black Watch, and the leading Scottish playwright David Greig, both representing the NTS's top talent since its inception, had turned their energies on a fable set in consummately English London but written by a man born in Kirriemuir.

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The stated goal was to return JM Barrie's work to its darker roots in Scotland, to make Peter "this feral Scottish boy from the Highlands", to strip the story of its "Disneyfication" and panto buffoonery. In the words of the programme notes: "This was an opportunity to toughen up the Edwardian gentility of the play and to tune into the dark undercurrents that gave such resonance to the myth of Peter Pan."

But watching this dreary show, it was clear that something had gone badly wrong. One of its worst moments is the scene where a muscled, bare-torsoed Peter Pan tries to wake up Tinkerbell not by asking boys and girls to clap, but bellowing angrily on his knees at her dying flame. I was tempted to shout: "I do believe in fairies!"

It's suggested the creative team on the show was simply too large, but there was a strange logic at work. By taking on Peter Pan, the NTS was presumably declaring JM Barrie an important Scottish playwright – certainly one whose most famous character has achieved an international immortality on a par with Sherlock Holmes.

The result may be a lesson in the perils of one-dimensional "Scotticisation". It produced a version that was, as Peter Pans go, frankly childish. It appeared to borrow, and bastardise, the best lines and classic scenes in the name of making a Scottish playwright's work more Scottish.

The NTS's biggest success has been Black Watch, an original story of Scots squaddies on the front line in Iraq. The mistake here, perhaps, was to try to latch a similar view of what constitutes Scottish culture onto to a classic and deceptively subtle children's story by a Scottish writer.

Peter Pan will struggle, I suspect, to get the international exposure accorded Black Watch.

Three Sixty Entertainment's Peter Pan, which played to packed crowds at the O2 arena in London, has just opened for business in San Francsico, selling more than 50,000 tickets. I can only wonder if US audiences would be baffled by this Scottish version.

It is one thing to move the setting from Bloomsbury to the shadow of the Forth Bridge, to turn Mr Darling from a city breadwinner to the clichd Scottish engineer. It's another to rewrite and reduce Barrie's lyrical language into an unnecessarily crude Scottish accent, and produce violent fight scenes where actors double up in pain, where Peter Pan is poised to stab a sleeping child, and tosses a human head to the Lost Boys.

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Reclaiming Peter Pan on the Forth, one observer commented, is about as sensible as bringing Hamlet back to Warwick. Putting Jon Anderson my Jo, into the musical score does not make Peter Scottish.

NTS producers argued Barrie's play was written episodically through several versions of story and play, giving licence to probe his "real" intentions. Previewers predicted the "unofficial keepers of Barrie's literary heritage" might be offended. Well, why not?

There's nothing wrong with a cracking sequel or free translation of a classic. The quintessentially Scottish artist and playwright John Byrne has proved that with his compelling and accomplished Scottish period settings of Chekhov. The Cherry Orchard, restaged at the dawn of the Thatcher era, currently playing at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum, mixes his maverick streak with deft homage to the original, and has won four-star reviews.

David Greig's own Dunsinane, his sequel to Macbeth, which opened in London earlier this year, made Scotland a modern Afghanistan, brave and thought-provoking. One can hope that playwright Anthony Neilsen explores another strand of Scottish history in the Darien Disaster with his festival show Caledonia.

But the treatment of Barrie left me praying that Holmes is never relocated to Fife. Sticking the Forth Bridge into the backdrop – as Alfred Hitchcock did for his film of John Buchan's 39 Steps – doesn't make it less one-dimensional.

Certainly Peter Pan can be saccharine. And certainly it can, perhaps should, be lampooned. But this was apparently not a satire – and the NTS seemed to have lost sight of its audience. Boasting fight scenes and extra special effects, it dangled the promise of stage magic, only to withdraw it.

JM Barrie was a remarkable craftsman, who took incredible trouble with his plays, including stage directions far beyond what anyone else did. He played around with Peter Pan's endings over two decades after it first appeared in 1904, but there was never any question of a loose script.

Roger Lancelyn Green wrote: "Peter Pan is the only children's play that is also a great work of literature." George Bernard Shaw called it "ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people". Like the best children's stories it speaks over their heads to adults, about childhood, loss, and boys – or men – who struggle in adult relationships.

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Barrie, who "turns 150" on 9 May, left Scotland to live mostly in England from the age of 24. But in his later play Mary Rose, for example, he created a Scottish character, Cameron, who in the guise of a simple ghillie studying for the ministry, corrects his English visitors on classical literature. He cracked jokes about the Scots in his work, but his play What Every Woman Knows also explored more profound collisions between English and Scottish society. In the introduction to the Oxford English Drama collection of his plays, he's credited with a "double-agent's gift for infiltrating both national cultures". He deserved better from our national theatre.