An Awfully Big Adventure
Set right after World War II, a naive teenage girl joins a shabby theatre troupe in Liverpool. During a winter production of Peter Pan, the play quickly turns into a dark metaphor for youth as she becomes drawn into a web of sexual politics & intrigue.
In the film's prologue, a hotelier ushers a child into a bomb shelter during the Liverpool Blitz. We see a brief flashback to a woman leaving her baby in a basement surrounded by flickering candles. Before departing from the house, she quickly drops a string of pearls on the child's pillow, twined around a single rose.
Years later, 16-year-old Stella Bradshaw lives in a working class household with her Uncle Vernon & Aunt Lily in Liverpool. Lacking an adult in her life that she feels close to, she frequently goes into phone booths to speak with her mother, who never appears in the film. Stella has no interest in schoolwork & her uncle, who sees a theatrical career as being her only alternative to working behind the counter at Woolworths, signs her up for speech lessons & pulls the strings to get her involved at a regional playhouse. After an unsuccessful audition, Stella gets a job gofering for Meredith Potter, the troupe's sleazy, eccentric director.
The impressionable Stella develops a crush on the worldly, self-absorbed Potter, whose homosexuality completely eludes her. Potter reveals himself to be a cruel, apathetic man who treats Stella & everyone else around him with scorn & condescension & has a long history of exploiting young men. His latest dalliance is with Geoffrey, another teenage apprentice. Stella is quickly caught up in the backstage intrigue & also becomes the object of passes from several men surrounding the theatre company, among them P.L. O'Hara, a brilliant actor who has returned to the troupe for a stint playing Captain Hook in its Christmas production of Peter Pan. In keeping with theatrical tradition, O'Hara also doubles in the role of Mr. Darling.
O'Hara carries himself with grace & charisma, but privately is as troubled & disillusioned as the other members of the cast. Haunted by his wartime experiences & a lost love (who, he believes, bore him a son he never knew), O'Hara embarks on an affair with Stella, to whom he feels an inexplicably deep emotional connection. Stella, who still has her mind set on winning Potter's favor, remains emotionally detached but takes advantage of O'Hara's affections, seeing it as an opportunity to gain sexual experience. Disturbed by Stella's pursuance of the abusive Potter, O'Hara visits her aunt & uncle, who fill him in on Stella's history. He soon finds out that Stella's long-missing mother was his lost love, whom he then knew by the nickname Stella Maris, making Stella who he's been sleeping with his child, a daughter rather than the son he had imagined.
Keeping his discovery to himself, O'Hara gets on his motorcycle & drives back out to the seaport. Distracted, he slips on the wet gangplank, hits his head & is pitched into the water.
Potter takes on the role of Captain Hook for the last performance. Stella is later seen hastening to the phone booth to confide her woes over the phone to "her mother" as has been her habit throughout the film. We are suddenly reminded that the absent Stella Maris had years ago won a nationwide contest to be the voice of the speaking clock. It is her recorded voice that provides the only response to her daughter's confidences.