With Halloween upon us, it seems apt that Edinburgh’s Lyceum theatre should decide to mount a ghost story to play in the weeks surrounding 31 October. JM Barrie’s Mary Rose, first staged in 1920, may not be as well known as his enduring classic, Peter Pan, but the decision to revive another of the writer’s classics for a new generation is admirable.
The play tells the story of a family who preserve a dark secret known only to the mother and father of eighteen-year-old Mary Rose. As she announces her intentions to marry friend of the family Simon, the girl’s parents decide to tell him something that they’ve never even told their daughter, a fact that has haunted them for a decade and which will have repercussions for years to come.
Reputedly Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite play, and one which JM Barrie allegedly claimed not to truly understand himself, this is not a story with a clear start, middle and end. In part this is due to the non-linear style, events starting in the “present” day of 1918 and before moving back and forth to cover past happenings. Clarity isn’t exactly forthcoming when the main problem afflicting Mary Rose becomes apparent, Barrie deciding to opt for a mysterious air rather than explaining anything to a curious audience.
Themes present in Peter Pan rear up again here, the idea of a lost childhood so present in that tale quite stark in this one. Mary Rose is a tragic character, albeit one with boundless energy and optimism, and the pain felt by both her and those around her is palpable in this production.
As the title character Kim Gerard does well with a part so very much rooted in the past, Mary Rose’s youthful exuberance giving way to more adult concerns.
While the central mystery does maintain the viewer’s attention from scene to scene, the slow pace and lack of major set-pieces means that anyone expecting a more modern type of horror could be disappointed. The use of incidental music to underpin the more dramatic dialogue is distracting at times, with Michael Mackenzie’s delivery certainly never needing this kind of support.
With some rich dialogue and fine performances, Mary Rose is very much a play of its time that acts as a window to some of the concerns from the post-war period of the early 1920s, when the death of sons, husbands and fathers was still on the minds of many contemporary theatregoers. Whether those concerns are still of such interest today remains to be seen.
Review by Jonathan Melville
Visit the Lyceum website for full booking details