Flying to Neverland

19th November 2004 at 00:00
As the boy who never grew up reaches 100 Adi Bloom previews the Peter Pan exhibition

The turn of the last century was greeted by a sudden rise in the number of small children hurling themselves off tall objects. This bizarre phenomenon was prompted by the opening of the play Peter Pan, by JM Barrie, which premiered 100 years ago next month.

Peter Pan, the tale of the boy who never grew up, was first written as a children's play in 1904, and turned into a novel in 1911. But it was in the theatre that the story of Peter, Wendy and their ability to fly first achieved popularity.

Catherine Haill, curator of popular entertainment at the Theatre Museum, in London's Covent Garden, said: "A lot of children went away thinking they could fly, and jumping off things. It's lucky we were a less litigious society then. Barrie had to add a bit about needing fairy dust to be able to fly."

To mark the anniversary, the Theatre Museum has assembled an exhibition celebrating 100 years of Peter Pan.

Among the items on display is the theatrical equivalent of fairy dust: a heavy, leather-and-metal harness, used to enable the first Peter to fly.

"There had been a troop of flying Italian ballerinas before," said Ms Haill. "But Peter Pan used a new mechanism, allowing the actor to move around."

The exhibition will invite children to listen to stories, design their own fairy wings, and explore Peter Pan myths from other countries.

And it will also include costumes worn by early Peters, and posters and photographs from a century of performances.

Nicholas Tucker, senior lecturer in culture at Sussex university, believes that the play can still appeal to a generation of children desperate to imitate adulthood before they reach their teens.

He said: "Some elements of the story will be a little bit remote now.

Children are too tough-minded these days for the idea of a fairy being born every time a baby laughs. And few children have ever liked the idea of not growing up.

"But it's a fiction straight from children's games. And children's games don't change that much. There are still mermaids, fairies and pirates."

Peter Pan was created by Barrie to entertain the five sons of a friend, the youngest of whom was called Peter. The story features pirates, red Indians and sword fights in a magical world called Neverland.

Ruth Durbin, head of Sir James Barrie primary, in south London, believes that her pupils would benefit from exploring the play's history.

"It's a celebration of the magic of childhood, but it's also about children with no mother. With families splitting up, that has great relevance today.

"But so far I haven't had any children coming to me with scraped knees because they've been trying to fly."

"Peter Pan: 100 years old and still flying" will be at the Theatre Museum from November 30 to January 31. www.theatremuseum.org.uk

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