Please note: This review contains spoilers.
The isle is full of noises and the stage is filled with wailing, haunted, urchin-like figures. J.M. Barrie’s 1920 ghost story (which Alfred Hitchcock apparently wanted to adapt into a film) harks back to the solid middle-class stability of the Victorian era, undermined by inexplicable phenomena. Written shortly after the end of the First Wold War when countless bereaved families were dabbling in spiritualism in order to get in touch with their loved ones and trying to move on with their lives (today, one thinks of parents of abducted children), the play could be considered a companion piece to Peter Pan, depicting a girl who never grew up.
Matthew Parker’s production, which was first staged at the Brockley Jack Theatre last year, makes Barrie’s curious mix of supernatural mysticism and rather creaky drawing room chit-chat as atmospheric and coherent as it could possibly be, performed by a committed cast. An Australian soldier returns to his childhood home in Sussex to find it crumbling and unlived in for many years due to rumours about it being haunted. Told in flashbacks, the dustsheets on Cherry Trulock’s gauzy, be-ribboned set are pulled back to reveal a comfortable drawing room inhabited by Mr and Mrs Morland (Nicholas Hoad and Maggie Robson) and their adored only child Mary Rose, who is “Curiously young for her age”.
Seven years earlier, Mary Rose was taken on holiday to the Outer Hebrides, whiling her days away sketching on a tiny island known to the local residents as “The island that likes to be visited”, before suddenly vanishing as her father rowed to shore to collect her. When she re-appeared 20 days later, she had no idea that she had ever been away. Upon accepting a marriage proposal from the steady, rational seaman Simon (Carsten Hayes), her parents warn him against letting her return to the island, but he is unfazed by the idea of paranormal goings-on. After four years of marriage and a baby, they return the spot, which for Mary Rose is like coming home and the island similarly embraces her.
Jessie Cave is physically perfect and appropriately artless as the round-faced, flowing-haired child-wife fated to be a perpetual ingénue, the kind of childlike ideal reminiscent of many a Dickensian heroine and male fantasy. Asking Simon if she will still be allowed to “play” after they are married, there is something uncomfortable about the idea of her being old enough to get married, even though Simon’s intentions couldn’t be more honourable.
Maria Haik Escudero’s music excellently evokes the eerie twilight world. The ensemble of unquiet spectres dressed in rags, chanting and yodelling are rather like primitive human beings that time forgot and Gary Bowman’s use of candlelight gives a perfect ‘gathered around the fire’ ambiance.
Barrie is elusive in offering explanations and whether the island’s powers are a gift or curse is never directly addressed. A certain amount of ambiguity is necessary in any ghost story, but this one feels as if it hasn’t been fully thought-through. It’s most affecting in its advocacy of moving on with life. When Mrs Morland describes Mary Rose as “Something beautiful that has been dreamed up”, it’s a brave and heartbreaking way of remembering a lost child.
Mary Rose is playing at the Riverside Studios until 28 April. For more information and tickets, see the Riverside Studios website.