Finding Neverland

Kevin Kern as J.M. Barrie and Tom Hewitt as Captain Hook and cast. Below: Ben Krieger as Peter Llewelyn Davies and Christine Dwyer as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. Photos by Carol Rosegg Bookmark & Share

The Incredible Anarchy of J.M. Barrie

By John Moore

Finding Neverland video

Finding Neverland is the story of how playwright J.M. Barrie found both the inspiration to write Peter Pan and the courage to put his story on the turn-of-the-century London stage.

James Graham, 34-year-old British playwright, understands why modern audiences might be a bit baffled to hear that it took actual courage for Barrie to stage what has become one of the most beloved stories of the past century.

"It’s easy to forget now, because Peter Pan is so ingrained in our popular conscience," says Graham. "But when J.M. Barrie wrote that play in 1904, it was incredibly radical."

Finding Neverland
Kevin Kern, left, Sammy, Finn Faulconer and Christine Dwyer

What Barrie did 100 years ago just wasn't done in London. He not only put children on the stage—he made them the focus. And that gave them the power of the storytelling.

"The idea that J.M. Barrie would, first and foremost, give children voice, rather than the grownups, was a complete reversal of the hierarchy and the status quo," Graham says. "He was famous for flipping those power dynamics. He even made their nanny a dog. All of that was quite anarchic. It was quite shocking to the theater establishment when he delivered that play."

This was, he further explained, a very rigid, post-Victorian society. "It's is all about social structures and hierarchy and knowing your place and never going above your circumstances," says Graham.

It was thought that if it ever leaked out before the opening that this was a play about flying pixies and fairies and dogs and pirates, it would destroy the theatre's reputation—and possibly Barrie's reputation too.

Finding Neverland
Christine Dwyer and Kevin Kern.

"There was an idea about what society was and what art should be, and Barrie contradicted that by suggesting there was possibly a value to learning from children, from returning to that sense of innocence and make-believe from childhood," says Graham.

Graham's recent plays include the acclaimed Privacy at London's Donmar Warehouse, which investigates the consequences of living life online in the post-Snowden era, and This House at the National Theatre, which took a hard political look at the British House of Commons.

These might not make him Director Diane Paulus's most obvious choice to write the book for the Broadway musical adaptation of Finding Neverland. "Everything about it appealed to my slightly anarchic side," he says. And Graham evidently appealed to Paulus.

"Diane has an incredible forensic knowledge of how you build a musical and how musicals work in terms of their structure and their effect on an audience," Graham says. "I think she does apply some pretty out-of-the-box thinking when she puts a show together. I think visually, Diane Paulus has created some of the most beautiful and thrilling effects on stage that I've ever been a party to."

Here is more with Finding Neverland book writer James Graham:

You're a writer, and J.M. Barrie was a writer, but when you first got the call, what specifically interested you most about the story you were being asked to write?

Finding Neverland
Christine Dwyer as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies.

First and foremost, I would say I related to the plight of the main character, J.M. Barrie, as a writer who is feeling slightly trapped and blocked, and a writer who yearned to return to an age of living in his imagination. I think we all have a bit of Peter Pan in us, and I think I probably have more of a child than most of the people I know my age. I spend my life making up characters and living in my own head. So I associated with that, because in real life, I'm not very exciting.

What was it like working with your pop-star composers Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy?

We tried to take the spirit of J.M. Barrie and do something that felt sort of intentionally incongruous. Having upbeat British pop music in an English, Edwardian setting was really exciting to me. There are some incredible numbers in the show from these guys. That has nothing to do with me, but I think the audience hopefully should be leaving the theater singing at the end of the night.

For most of the general public, Peter Pan has been a part of pop culture for a hundred years. What can we tell people so they don't mistake Finding Neverland for any other Peter Pan story?

Finding Neverland

It's the story of the origins of one of the greatest works in our shared culture. It's not the story of Peter Pan itself—it's how Peter became Pan. And it's a really, really brilliant, funny, amazing and moving story of how this playwright, finding himself in a condition—which I think every audience member will understand—of suddenly feeling like you've gotten slightly older, without meaning to. You've taken on all this responsibility, and life just isn't quite as much fun as it used to be. Meeting this extraordinary family, as Barrie did in real life, turned him into this brilliant, silly kid again. And then he took on London society and created this play that inspired them all. It's a real-life story and it's so brilliantly exciting, funny and moving, that I think hopefully people should love it.

John Moore is senior arts journalist for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

 

SEGERSTROM HALL
Dates: March 21 – April 2, 2017
Tickets: $29 and up
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