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17 April 1917: Barrie’s Old Lady examines the effects of war

Published 23 April 2008

To many, the name JM Barrie conjures only images of a green-clad young boy who wouldn’t grow up, by the name of Peter Pan. Yet the Scottish author was a prolific playwright with many successes to his name. The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, which opened on 7 April 1917, was one such success, tackling themes close to the heart during World War I.

The plot followed an aged charwoman, played by West End regular Jean Cadell. Without a husband or child fighting in the Great War, when she meets her friends, unlike them, she cannot boast about heroic exploits.

To help in her plight, she finds the name of a soldier who she passes off as her own son as she brags about his deeds. All is fine until he returns home on leave and is introduced to her. Though shocked at her deception, he is an orphan himself and takes her as a surrogate mother. On returning to the front he, like countless others, dies in battle, leaving the old lady proudly grieving.

The piece was also personal to Barrie, whose adopted son, George Llewellyn Davies, on whom some of the characteristics of Peter Pan are said to be based, was killed in the Flanders trenches in 1915. The Old Lady Shows Her Medals was written to raise funds for victims of the war and the families that suffered with them.

The play’s debut at the New theatre was timely, coming the day after America announced that it was joining the conflict, and it also had a life outside the West End. Later in 1917 it was staged at the Empire theatre on Broadway, and in 1937 it was filmed for television starring Scottish character actor Jack Lambert.

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