When asked about the genre of his play ‘A Familiar Friend’, writer Josh Bourne replied that it’s play of “magical realism…but the conflict of the audience on this matter is deliberate.” To me, this adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ (refigured as a drug fuelled quest for eternal youth by modern day Oxford students) was neither magical nor realistic. At least we agreed about the ‘conflict’ part.
It’s clear that the play is aimed at students who may empathise with Pan’s denial of adulthood and responsibility, but this earnest attempt at connection is lost in translation. What emerges is an elaborate illustration of the breakdown of a fragile male ego. Lifting heavily from the prose narrative of Barrie’s story (and from biographical elements of his life), the product is a pastiche performed without irony. Key exposition for the characters is left entirely until the last minute, leaving the audience with no explanation of their motivations. Moments that could be relatable, such as Wendy’s confession that she “wanted to be a writer… once upon a time…” are communicated with such a blithe grandiosity that it’s hard to tell if the writer is striving for irony or sincerity.
Disappointingly, almost every female character is shaped by their relationship to the protagonist. While Pan was cast gender-blind and is played by Chloé Delanney, director Iggy Wood told me that as a creative decision this was only a nod to the panto tradition, not to foreground any issues of masculinity – and it shows. Pan’s narcissistic proclamations are echoed sickeningly back to him by Tinker Bell, and Wendy doesn’t have a problem with the fact that their first date was “very you Peter – I liked it.” Besides the fact that Pan has sex with Wendy and Tinker Bell almost indiscriminately, the only time these women are seen together is to discuss Peter’s family issues. As Tinker Bell sighs an unimaginative variant of Philip Larkin’s, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”, one wonders if the women are supposed to have any original voice at all in this play. Even Pan’s mother is described in passing as being “a wonderful woman, exactly like him.” For your information, reader, it doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test.
Wood further elucidated that the play was about the power and difficulty of choice, and that in this regard, Wendy might be the character with whom we sympathise. This seemed to me a curious deduction. By using the fairytale as a narrative frame, most of the action seems pre-determined – choice is a secondary matter. The play also strives to be a victorious narrative for Wendy, but the controlling forces of her father (a disembodied voice who appears as a spotlight onstage) and Peter determine most of her actions. Her ‘choices’ revolve around powerful men, exemplified when a petulant Peter stamps, “I have to let her decide for herself – It’s Hook [management consultant], or me this time.”
The actors do enormously well with the material that they’ve been given. There is an honest connection between Jess Brown’s Wendy and Delanney’s Pan, and their heartfelt tenderness is refreshing. Alec McQuarrie as the supercilious Hook deserves a mention: his caricature of an ex-Etonian banker type is actually pretty funny and provides welcome moments of comedy. In terms of the production, the lack of music is an opportunity wasted, but Nusch Bourne has created a fantastic set. Her beautiful ‘forest’ construction wonderfully illustrates the collision between fantasy and real-life, even if this is not apparent in the directing.
Let me be explicit. Writing and directing an original piece of drama while balancing the commitments of Oxford is no easy feat. For this, I commend Josh Bourne and Iggy Wood, and I must comment that they were more than generous with their time in answering my questions. In light of this, I’m really sorry to say that the production was riddled with problematic tropes and strange handling of the original material, and I left the theatre with an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction. At one point in the dialogue, a Lost Boy suggests that it might be fun to pass the time joking about Brexit. In response, another chides, “Awh mate, read the room.” I feel the writer and director need to hear the same.