Halloween Special - Mary Rose

Mary Rose

Creep show

Steve Cramer explores gothic tales as he talks to director Tony Cownie about JM Barrie’s eerie tale of the supernatural, Mary Rose

It’s often seen as an ill omen if a play of some antiquity is seldom revived. Yet, in the case of JM Barrie’s seldom seen play Mary Rose, this suspicion might not be justified.

Certainly, in the year of its release, the play was well received, becoming one of the most distinguished West End performers of 1920, attracting a distinguished admirer in the young Alfred Hitchcock, who long afterwards rated it the best theatrical story he’d ever seen. A screenplay was in fact produced, but, for reasons less to do with the quality of the play than the vicissitudes of studio financing, Mary Rose remained the best film Hitchcock never made.

In terms of Barrie’s storytelling and creation of atmosphere, it’s easy to see what the cinematic master so admired. The eerie, ghostly tale tells of the eponymous young girl, who disappears into the mists of the holiday isle at which her family is staying. She reappears 11 days later, somehow changed. Years later, Mary, now a young woman, marries, then, after the birth of a child, disappears again. Her final reappearance a generation later amounts to a memorable theatrical moment … but to tell more would be to spoil the chilling denouement.

Director Tony Cownie, who is helming the Lyceum’s revival of Barrie’s play, attests to the creepy narrative power of the piece. ‘There’s a lot of things you don’t expect that occur in this play,’ he says. ‘When I was reading it, there was this sense that I couldn’t wait to see what happened. That’s great storytelling. And it stays with you afterwards.’

Part of the play’s ghostly power, Cownie maintains, is Barrie’s own overarching obsession with what happens after life ends. ‘He’s fascinated with the idea that you can tamper with life, stop it, rewind, start again. There’s this fascination of what happens when life ends.’

Any production of Barrie’s play requires meticulous casting. Its most successful revival occurred back in the early 1970s, when Mia Farrow played the titular character. For this crucial role, Cownie has chosen a young actress, Kim Gerard, who graduated from Queen Margaret University College only a couple of years back.

‘To me it was a very important casting,’ Cownie says. ‘She has to have a childish quality about her, but there’s also an ethereal quality there, as if she’s from some other dimension. Some people have got that, just something about them, and I think Kim has it.’

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 24 Oct–Sat 15 Nov. On Fri 31 Oct, List holders go 2-for-1 while tickets last

Mary Rose

  • 3 stars

New production of JM Barrie's time-travelling Edwardian ghost story.

Mary Rose Pre-Show Talk

  • 3 stars

Dr Caroline Watt delivers a talk before tonight's performance.