What is Mary Rose about? Peter Pan is the little boy who won't grow up. He has his Never Never Land. Mary Rose is the little girl who can't grow up, she has her island "that likes to be visited". Peter Pan was produced in 1904, Mary Rose in 1920, but though there is a passing reference to Mary's husband being heroically lost at sea in the Great War, she doesn't fit as a symbol for all those whose lives were cut off in their youth, though elements of the play reflect a coming to terms with the loss of children. On the other hand, on her very first entrance an immature Mary Rose, climbing out of an apple tree and through the window announces "Daddy I am frightened... I am most afraid of you." Now what should we read into that?
When I first saw this play in my mid-teens I didn't ask such questions, I just enjoyed its theatricality and whimsy and a delightful performance from a young Caroline Hooper (was it she?) in this story of a little girl who disappears on a tiny uninhabited Hebridean island then reappears three weeks later in the same spot. Still innocently child-like, she returns as a young mother and disappears again—but this time not for days but for a quarter of a century, on both occasions unaware of where she has been or of time passing. The baby she left behind is now older than his mother.
It begins with Harry. that baby, now a grown man with an Australian accent, returning after the Great War to the house he ran away from when he was twelve. It is now empty and up for sale, though tales of a ghostly haunting deter buyers. The scene then transforms back to the day when the young naval officer Simon asks for Mary Rose's hand in marriage, moves to the island for the second disappearance, leaps twenty-five years and then returns to young Harry at the moment the first scene ended.
It is a ghost story that is wrapped around a gentle comedy of middle class family life. Mr and Mrs Moreland and their friend Mr Amy play out almost identical scenes of friendly conflict and reconciliation twenty-five years apart. Nicholas Hoad, Maggie Robson and Alec Gray go from late forties to seventies without believable naturalness and invest this mild fustian with a sincerity that makes it believable while Carsten Hayes gives enough charm to the rather slow-witted Simon to prevent the naval lieutenant becoming too obvious a caricature. As Cameron, a boatman whose erudition contrasts with Simon's ignorance, Phil Bishop awkwardly maintains the proprieties in Barrie's stiltingly structured dialogue.
In the 1920 "present day" scenes, Joanna Watt's caretaker and Charlie Kerson's Harry are somewhat swamped by Matthew Parker's production on Cherry Truluck's seemingly solid set whose dimly lit gauze walls reveal a host of spirits from the island, for instead of distant voices calling, here they are manifestly present as part of the haunting.
Director Parker has made this ensemble of "ghosts" a dominant part of his production with choral and string music specially composed by Maria Haik Escudero to give them voices. From the beginning, the audience waits to an ominous sound like the underwater echo of a ship's hull being beaten and when the lights go down the ghosts are there. They drift onto the stage and across it in a sort of choral overture; they lift the returning Harry in his chair as though assessing and appraising him; they make the time transitions and scene changes happen as they redress the setting in a ghostly ballet; and on their island they tempt and abduct Mary Rose to effect her disappearance. There is also a striking touch of freezing ends and beginnings of scenes as tableaux with a sound like a photographer's magnesium flash being fired. Clever stuff.
This is nicely thought out, effective choreography and well performed by this ensemble, but in grey-toned clothes, some tattered, pale faces and with one male spirit bare chested they seem more like zombies than spirits of a happy isle, despite their slow motion playful tumbling. Jessie Cave's delightful Mary Rose, trapped in childhood even after she has become a mother, is surely happy in her island; being juvenile, would they not, on their island at least, be creatures of sunlight? But, accompanying dead Mary Rose, searching still for her baby Harry, though she may not remember that's her object, their games are perhaps appropriately doleful.
The island's spirits form such a dominant theatrical image that the presentation of what has happened previously in the same room is framed at one remove from real life. Perhaps this play is saying that the past, like childhood, is something we must put behind us. But why seek a meaning? Why not enjoy this, as I did when I first saw it, simply as a piece of theatre? Enough that it makes you think about these things.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton