Well, I was all set to go on about Les Miserables. No, not the musical record-trampler recently certified as the longest-milked cash cow in the history of West End and Broadway. Nor the original yet-another-page turner, either. I wanted to commemorate the anniversary of a 1942 radio sketch spoofing Hugo’s epic . . . until I realized that I had already done just that last October. So, before I end up resorting to bottled thought, I’d better lower myself anew into the tortuous sewers of popular culture. What I came up with, this time, is the idea for a new column.
Noticing that a recording of Fred Allen’s Les Mischief is being presented tonight by the WRVO Playhouse, it occurred to me that, rather than relying on my own library of plays, it might be refreshing to find out what is “Now on the Air,” to highlight programs currently online, broadcasts or podcasts that caught my ear and might be worth your time.
One such discovery is “Peter Pan in Scarlet,” an adaptation of the recently published sequel to the famous play and novel by J. M. Barrie. True, I’d prefer being treated to another helping of Barrie’s comedy As Every Woman Knows, a superb production of which I caught in Manchester, England, a few months ago. I am generally so little inclined to romanticize the alleged wonders of childhood that I was tickled to find “No Room for Peter Pan,” an odd radio play about growing up starring the most famous Every Woman of them all—Miss Helen Hayes.
Not that I’ve been trying to dodge those Peter Panhandlers altogether. Most recently I took in Paramount’s delightful 1924 version featuring the aforementioned Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily; but, having once suffered through Spielberg’s dismal 1991 update showcasing the belatedly juvenile antics of Man of the Year wannabe Robin Williams, I still approach subsequences like Peter Pan in Scarlet with some misgivings.
Mind you, this is an “official” sequel. In 2005, author Geraldine McCaughrean was commissioned to continue the adventures of Peter and Wendy as sanctioned by the trust to whom Barrie granted the rights to his story. On 14 October 2006, shortly after the publication of the legitimized follow-up, BBC Radio 4 presented its authorized dramatization of McCaughrean’s novel, adapted for the sound-only medium by Nick Warburton. Before being issued as an audio book, a recording of the broadcast has been made available in the BBC’s online archive.
The production is a throwback to old-fashioned radio dramatics, replete with a guiding, at times interacting, narrator and a for British radio unusual attention to sound effects. At ninety minutes, however, it might get on your nerves before it can plays itself out in your mind. As much of American radio drama of the so-called golden age, it tries to cram an entire novel through the comparatively narrow slot of a single broadcast; but unlike the former, this production seems to insist on telescoping it all in a nearly seamless Pan-orama rather than editing and segmenting through slow fades, pauses, and musical bridges, without which much gets lost in breathless confusion, a hyperactive storytelling as unruly as Peter himself.
In a nod to that beloved late-20th century fairytale A Nightmare on Elm Street, “Peter Pan in Scarlet” opens with John Darling shuddering to frightful visions of steel-clawed Captain Hook; and, the horrors being communicable, he is not the only one dreading sleep. “I imagine dreams are leaking out of Neverland. So we must find out why,” Wendy determines in her instant diagnosis of John’s case. The cure she prescribes is to “call the old boys together again” and, overcoming the considerable obstacle that is adulthood, to revisit their apparently endangered pal.
In order to take flight, the grown-ups have to become children again, a feat achieved by shrinking into the clothes of their offspring. This provides an occasion for cross-dressing and gender-bending in an update divested of the original’s androgyny and adolescent yearnings. The jolly downsizing is nicely realized by the uncredited sound-effects artists. From then on, bright ideas and dark twists chase one another in what amounts to a frantic and noisy quest for a good night’s rest.
Prominent in the cast is Shakespearean actor Roger Allam, who might have faired better than Fred Allen opposite the megalomaniacal Orson Welles in the radio sketch I had on my mind today. After all, Allam played Inspector Javert in the original West End production of Les Miserables and, not averse to hamming it up (as it struck me when I saw him in early 2005 in a crude pantomime at London’s Old Vic), would have refused to be drowned in the sewers without uttering as much as a line of dialogue. As Pan’s nemesis, he never stays down for long, a sequel-symptomatic resilience bespeaking a writer’s determination to keep a newly invigorated franchise afloat.