This short play, based on the imagined coming-of-age of Peter Pan creator J. M. Barrie is a curious affair – and worth seeing for its unexpectedness if nothing else.
It is rare that you go to the theatre, and play a game of 'It', 'I spy' or Chinese whispers. There's something to be said for shaking the audience out of its innate, stiff-upper-lip form of theatre going. Then again, if the audience participation falls flat, it can fail to set the right tone for the rest of the play and invites an atmosphere of awkwardness. This is the risk that the creators of The Boy James have knowingly taken.
The audience enters an intimate, den-like space, filled with curiosities gathered on far-off adventures, set within the comforts of upper-middle-class Victorian life. It is a brilliant space in which to watch this fleeting, three-person play – and is certainly a surprise, having entered from the cavernous arches of Southwark Playhouse. The distant sounds of London Bridge Friday evening activity serve only to heighten the intimate and shared nature of the experience. Perhaps the only drawback of such a confined space is revealed through the occasional rough-and-tumble – at times the action looked close to toppling pre-theatre drinks and treading on those members of the audience sat on over-stuffed floor cushions.
J. M. Barrie (James) is trying to leave his childhood behind, gently chiding The Boy James to learn to read, to join the adult world. Whilst The Boy clings to his innocent and naive adventures, unwilling to ever grow up, the arrival of The Girl reminds us all that we have no choice in the matter (as does the ever present ticking clock). The Girl is perhaps also symbolic of society's concerns about the over-sexualisation of children, and the subversive effects of alcohol – a neat modern twist for a production set in a bygone era.
This is not a play for children – the cowering form of The Boy is extremely uncomfortable to watch, and swear words are used liberally (to good effect). This is a play for those looking for something a little bit different – not simply close interaction with the actors, but also a production with no clear resolution, which leaves you questioning what just happened, and forced to leave before you are ready. Perhaps just like childhood.