(Noël Coward Theatre, London, until 1 June 2013)
One of four plays in the Michael Grandage Season at the Noël Coward Theatre, Peter and Alice was already virtually sold out in January when I booked my ticket. Last Tuesday night, I found myself in my customary spot up in the back of the balcony, opera glasses at the ready. I hadn’t read any reviews of the play (I try not to, until after I’ve made up my own mind about things) and I’d been really looking forward to it.
Part of the appeal was the chance to see Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw on stage. Moreover, this is a new play which has been written by John Logan, who was the screenwriter on Skyfall and did such a good job in breathing new life into the James Bond franchise. Then there was the play’s concept itself – a conversation between the two people who inspired, respectively, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. I was expecting it to be excellent. Sadly it wasn’t; but it failed to be excellent in rather interesting ways.
It’s 1932 and a reception is underway to mark the centenary of Reverend Charles Dodgson’s birth. The guest of honour at the party is the elderly Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Judi Dench), who is waiting in a side room for her cue to enter and embark on her usual speech about the enduring magic of Alice in Wonderland, which she inadvertently inspired as a ten-year-old muse on golden summer afternoons in Oxford. As she waits, she finds herself accosted by a rather awkward young man (Ben Whishaw), who begins to ask uncomfortably searching questions. What exactly does she feel about having her childhood appropriated for public consumption in this way? Does she feel that people are disappointed when they meet the real Alice Liddell? How does she feel about Reverend Dodgson himself?
It becomes clear that the young man’s questions have a point. He is Peter Llewellyn Davies, one of five brothers befriended by J.M. Barrie, and the boy whose name was adopted for Barrie’s most enduring creation: Peter Pan. At first Alice is amused at the thought of them meeting like this, both so very different from their fictional alter egos. She tries to present the public-friendly face that she has grown accustomed to over the last sixty years, pointing out that ‘their’ stories have brought joy to generations of children. But Peter refuses to accept such a glib, polished response. Together, they find themselves exploring the darker side of what it means to be a child-muse, and wondering about what drove Dodgson and Barrie to form the close friendships with children that led to their classic stories.
There is darkness here – not in the shape of physical abuse, but in the form of emotional exploitation – and Logan treads a very delicate line with great care. He looks at these intense relationships from a child’s point of view: flattered by the attention, proud that one’s siblings weren’t favoured so much, but ultimately dogged by an uneasy sense that something wasn’t quite right. Both Peter and Alice confess that they felt something else was expected of them by their adult friends but they were never quite able, as children, to understand what that was; and so they knew only that, somehow, they had failed. Both Dodgson and Barrie come across as initially well-meaning: drawn to the children because they were little more than overgrown boys themselves, and found adult society (let alone adult women) difficult to deal with. Their clumsiness among other adults, however, disappeared when they were with children, transmuted into story-telling sessions, fantastical adventures and make-believe.
But Logan allows us to see how an innocent friendship can swiftly become tainted. He points out that Dodgson’s friendship with ten-year-old Alice took place at a time when the age of consent and marriage was twelve. In the play, the later stages of their friendship are shadowed by Dodgson’s confused attempts to find a way in which he can prevent the Alice he loves from growing up and leaving him – whether that’s through photographing her, or inching towards the idea of marrying her. Despite all this, Dodgson comes across as a rather naive, bumbling character; whereas Barrie seems much more sinister (Finding Neverland this is not).
Lodge implies that Barrie made himself indispensable to Arthur Davies as he was dying, in the hope of being made guardian to his five boys after his death. When that happened, he exploited his power over the boys to try to keep them reliant on him – making them feel guilty, even as young men, about making lives for themselves outside their relationship with him; and, in short, trying to prevent them from growing up. I don’t know enough of the history to be able to judge how accurate this is, but it’s a rather chilling angle on the stories.
One of the key questions in the play was: when do we grow up? Is it when society proclaims us an adult and allows us certain privileges – the first corset; the first ball; the parties, the husband, the children? Or is it when we have to face up to the reality that life is not forever? Is ‘growing up’ about dealing with grief; death; the bitterness of loneliness? It soon becomes clear that the latter is a more accurate guide. Alice, for all her parties and her marriage, is little more than a child playing at the idea of adulthood. Perhaps she doesn’t really leave childhood behind until the golden days are tempered with a bitter gall: a husband’s affairs with the servants; or, more terrible still, the Great War. This is something which looms large over both characters. After all, the only boys who really never grow up are those who die. Childhood recollections of playing Indians and pirates become merged with the smell of gas and the horrors of life in the trenches. The mermaid’s pool in Neverland blends into the quiet lake in which Peter’s brother Michael finally finds a way to escape from Barrie. Despite longing to be freed from their fictional alter egos, both Alice and Peter find themselves coming back to the stories as touchstones.
As you can see, Logan demands a lot of thinking in the course of the play’s 90-minute duration (it’s only one act and there’s no interval). I thought he handled the issues sensitively and honestly, but there was something about the performance that didn’t quite gel. Alice and Peter are the main characters, but Logan brings on two further pairs of characters as we go deeper into their memories. Dodgson (Nicholas Farrell) and Barrie (Derek Riddell) appear on stage to relive key moments of their relationships with the children, acting against Peter and Alice in their adult forms. A little later, Peter Pan (Olly Alexander) and Alice in Wonderland (Ruby Bentall) also join the action. I couldn’t decide whether they were meant to represent a generic childhood sense of wonder, magic and imagination, or whether they specifically represented the children who were still lost deep within Peter and Alice.
Either way, by the end of the play there were six people on stage (and sometimes seven, if you count Stefano Braschi, who gamely played Arthur Davies, Reggie Hargreaves and Michael Llewellyn Davies, as and when they were required). I wonder, honestly, how many people there needed to be. The addition of the fictional characters was the thing that really didn’t work for me. I can see why it was an appealing idea, but both of them (and Peter Pan in particular) added a slightly absurd note that jarred with the rest of the play. It risked trivialising Logan’s thoughtful exploration of the authors’ relationships with the children who inspired them. And I thought it was very ironic that both of these characters were played by adult actors.
Lest you think I’m being too critical, I should add that the sets were beautiful, starting off in the shabby back room of a bookshop, which opens out into a fantastical series of sets with chessboard floors, in which Peter and Alice play out their memories. As for the actors: Judi Dench has reached the stage where to play anything other than Judi Dench would disappoint her audience – she could have come on and simply read a shopping list and we would all have adored her. She gives Alice a spiky, self-defensive frailty which is very endearing, but she is now so famous that it becomes more and more difficult to look beyond the actor to the character. Ben Whishaw’s Peter was very hunched and self-contained and awkward – and, if that was entirely acting, then he did extremely well; but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that some of it was his own nervousness coming through. It shouldn’t have been – this guy kicked off his career with a West End run of Hamlet, after all – but he never quite seemed to comfortably inhabit the role (unlike his performances in Skyfall or Perfume, for example). A note of praise should also go to the programme, which includes a couple of unexpectedly absorbing mini-essays: one about the enduring appeal of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, and the other about changing ways of representing the stories through illustration.
Overall, however, Peter and Alice is a new play and it unfortunately felt like a new play: one which hasn’t had its wrinkles smoothed out yet and which still occasionally feels disjointed. Even though I knew it was going to be short, the ending still caught me unawares (and I’m about to tell you what it is, so beware if you don’t want spoilers). Alice and Peter simply leave the stage one by one, as their fictional alter egos tell the audience how each of them would die. The final line was, if I remember correctly, ‘A few years after that, Peter Llewellyn Davies went down into Sloane Square station and threw himself in front of a train.’ (Lights go down. Slightly awkward moment before the applause begins, as the audience members mentally calculate whether they have to go via Sloane Square on their way home).
As I left the theatre I felt strangely uneasy – and not just because I had to go via Sloane Square. The play never quite decided what it wanted to be, wavering between nostalgia and tragedy; and, although I’m all for breaking out of the usual genres, I simply don’t think that it worked here. It’s a shame, because the concept was wonderful – it’s just that the execution never quite lived up to the idea.