Just two days into 2014 and the first theatre to stage a drama set in The Great War is The Finborough with the harrowing Lost Boy.
The musical had its world premiere at the London venue last night and it was an awfully big adventure to shoehorn into a very intimate, though charming, theatre space.
Phil Willmott’s anthem to the corruption of innocence and lost youth makes compelling viewing, made even more heartfelt by the audience being so close to the cast as they relive the trauma of war.
The last time I saw Steven Butler he was a youthful Peter Pan, swinging high above the stage of The Grove Theatre, Dunstable and battling Brian Blessed’s terrifying Captain Hook in the venue’s big opening panto.
Well, the actor who wouldn’t grow up, is now leading his Lost Boys, and a lost generation, into the horror of the trenches. Butler plays one of JM Barrie’s, adoptive sons, George Llewelyn Davies, who was the inspiration for the writer’s greatest creation, Peter Pan.
But he was one of millions of very young men forced to put away their childhood for the harsh realities of war. In truth most threw themselves into battle believing the whole thing to be jolly exciting.
Exhausted by the endless battles which saw thousands needlessly die, Davies slumps into the mud to catch a few minutes rest and we are immediately sucked into his dreams.
Pan’s efforts to mature are fraught with pratfalls. He appears to Wendy to have lost none of his swagger and she gently chides him for standing in that familiar hands-on-the-hips pose, posturing and full of youthful bravado.
“Grown up men don’t stand like that unless they are in an operetta!” She mocks.
His Lost Boys introduce him to the delights of sex and soon his hormones are rampaging out of control. He has no social skills and wants to bring his expertise at fighting brigands to killing the pirates that occupy offices.
His efforts to woo Wendy fare no better and soon he has nowhere else to turn but to what he knows best - leading his men into war.
There are moments when the story veers into satire similar to Oh What A Lovely War and the change of pace jars with the rest of the story.
There are references throughout to other characters from the yarn but all have fallen from grace as innocence is wiped out by the necessity of war. Even Pan’s nemesis, Hook, makes an unlikely reappearance as an opium-sozzled reprobate, still bent on having his revenge on the boy.
Andrew C Wadsworth occasionally takes the character into panto for the odd moment but generally he’s on ripping form as the captain, Darling and Barrie.
But, largely, it’s difficult to tear yourself away from Butler’s haunted face and, to a lesser extent, the abject terror experienced by the gay adult Michael Darling (a beautifully rounded performance by Joseph Taylor) who witnesses his lover blown to pieces.
The production really needs more space to do justice to the song and dance routines and, from January 13, the show moves from the Finborough, in Earl’s Court, to the heart of London and the Charing Cross Theatre for a five week residency.
Lost Boy is thought-provoking and frequently disturbing. The story may not produce anything new but it’s a beautifully told personal viewpoint of World War One in a musical that will leave a lasting impression. Sadly, we learn, Davies died on the battlefield, a copy of Peter Pan in his pocket.
A powerful start to a year of great drama planned nationally to commemorate the centenary of the start of The Great War.
For tickets to Lost Boy at the Finborough (until Jan 11), call the box office 0844 847 1652 or visit www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
or for Charing Cross Theatre call 0844 930 650 or visit www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk