I never used to like J.M Barrie. Of course, like many people, I only knew Peter Pan which, quite frankly, always seemed to me to be drivel. I’m now willing to reconsider this opinion, but don’t hold out much hope of a change.
However, I have changed my mind about the hitherto unknown rest of him. I didn’t realise what a sharp and acerbic commentator on Edwardian society he was, how observant of its manners, how critical of its assumptions, how scathing about its conventions, how he revels in an almost Gilbertian topsey-turveydom. Nowhere are these features seen more acutely than in arguably his best and certainly, after Peter Pan, his best-known play, The Admirable Crichton, which hides its criticism behind the façade of a good-natured and often very funny comedy of manners.
The plot is simple. Lord Loam is holding his well-intentioned but quite dreadful monthly tea-party with his severely embarrassed servants (including Tweeny, destined for a crucial role) his daughters, some male hangers-on, and Crichton the butler, who could be Jeeves’s brother and is a strict guardian of the class system. An entirely inappropriate way of mixing the classes in such a stratified society. But Lord Loam plans a three-month voyage in his yacht and when they are shipwrecked on a desert island, the roles slowly reverse. At first there is confusion: two years later there is an efficient and developed little society, organised, run and ruled by Crichton. Rescue arrives and back home the old society re-forms itself. But the damage is done and nothing can be quite the same again.
Cally Phillips has history with this play, fully – and lovingly – recounted in the introduction to this omnibus edition which juxtaposes Barrie’s play with Down the Line, her own rewriting and updating of it, in which the Edwardian social system is replaced by modern celebrity culture.
Instead of Crichton the butler we have Jim Crichton (JC), the Close Protection Officer (CPO) of Caroline Carter, pop diva. She is engaged, almost inevitably, to Steve Brook, a professional footballer. Posh and Becks still rule. Kevin the documentary film maker is there to film Steve’s proposal to her – if Ted, Caroline’s watchful father, ever lets him. Caroline’s sister Catherine and wide boy Dave augment Team Caroline. Ted feels he is the leader, fulfilling the same role as Lord Loam – but after they are shipwrecked, SAS-trained JC, like Crichton before him, takes the dominant role. Back home, the trappings of celebrity culture take over again – but, for the audience – too late; they have been seen for the meretricious baubles which they are.
Updating a famous and much-loved work is fraught with difficulty. Courting comparison can be dangerous. Misunderstanding or (worse) trivialising the original are ever-present rocks to founder on. Cally Phillips avoids them. She knows the original play in production, she knows Barrie’s other work and she understands him. She knows her own play in production as well.
Down the Line is a lovely take on the original. The dialogue, the product of a good ear, crackles along and, just as in the original and as in all good drama, what the characters say is what they are. Tones, idioms and rhythms are judged exactly. To expand on Aristotle, character issues in action, but it issues in its words as well. Both productions which Cally Phillips describes in her introduction were with youth groups, Scottish students and Oxfordshire schoolkids (the latter the result of interesting outreach work by the Oxford University Dramatic Society), and indeed it is with a good Youth theatre group that the play would live best. I only have my own internal production to go on. But if I had my way it would be produced again now, near enough to home for me to go to to see it on stage – and I’ll do anything that I can to make it happen because I’d be assured of great entertainment and, afterwards, a lot to think about. And so would everyone else there.
Find out more about Cally Phillips