Scottish novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie created the character of Peter Pan in the early 1900s. More than a century later, Pan and his fictional counterparts continue to inspire creators of literary and theatrical work.
Sydney-based writer and composer, Christopher Harley, is the latest artist to take Barrie’s characters and craft a tale of his own. Now having its first outing at Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse, Remembering Pirates focuses on a man’s attempts to cling to an idealised, romanticised memory of his childhood – a version of events that, if shattered, may shatter his entire existence.
In Harley’s play, John (Simon London) is grown up. He’s a profoundly unhappy history teacher, unable to find love or contentment. He remains close to older sister, Wendy (Emma Palmer), who copes far better with adult life and is married to Richard (Stephen Multari). John and Wendy’s elderly father (Robert Alexander) resides in an aged care facility and suffers from dementia – another sharp reminder of what occurs when one loses a hold on their memories.
What emerges, early on, is that John and Wendy’s younger brother, Michael, went missing around the time of the children’s ‘Neverland adventure’. As would be expected, ever since, life for the family has never been the same. John clutches to the hope his brother will one day return, and seeks refuge from his unhappy current life in his memories of childhood games with Michael.
But how accurate is John’s recollection of the circumstances surrounding Michael’s vanishing? Does someone close to John have a version of events that, if revealed, will prevent him continuing to find solace in his childhood memories?
London effectively delivers the character of John as troubled, somewhat hopeless and slightly peculiar, but sympathetic. It’s a persuasive portrayal of a man who wears the emotional scars that have resulted from a highly traumatic childhood episode. As Wendy, Palmer’s performance feels authentic. She believably conveys stoicism – the crucial attribute that facilitates her ongoing ability to attend to the demands of her ailing father and her emotionally needy brother. Unfortunately, the talented Multari, as her husband, has little to work with in the script, but does what he’s able within those constraints.
Alicia Clements has created a set for Remembering Pirates that, while simple, effectively functions as aged care facility and family home. And Daniel Barber’s thoughtful lighting choices ensure that, when lights are combined with gusts of wind, the piece has its very own sprinkle of Pan magic, with looks evoking the ethereal and magical.
The problem with Harley’s piece lies in its brevity. Its total running time clocks in at just under an hour, and while an author’s efforts to deliver a tight script, trimmed of unnecessary embellishments, should always be applauded, there’s arguably more of a story to tell here. Could audience engagement with characters be deepened by being given the opportunity to better understand them through further fleshing out of the text? Should more, perhaps, be gradually revealed about John’s character to move us more organically to the show’s climax? One is left feeling a desire to have been drawn further into the characters’ world, the events that have transpired between them and the personal struggles by which they’ve, consequently, been afflicted.
That said, Harley’s Remembering Pirates, as it is, is a memorable evening of theatre, which poses questions about the fragility of the human mind and the ease with which one’s world can fall apart when survival relies on recollections of times gone by that move ever further into their past.
Remembering Pirates is playing at the Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse (39 Burton Street, Darlinghurst) until 16 October. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here