Childhood is a bank of happy memories against future suffering, so we can remember what happiness was.
Judi Dench, multiple award-winning actress and Dame. Ben Whishaw, nominated for an Olivier Award for the title role in Hamlet. Michael Grandage, award-winning director and former Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse. John Logan, winner of multiple Academy Awards for adapted and original screenplays.
Bringing these four people together should be a recipe for theatrical alchemy, especially when you throw into the mix Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, two enduring characters of children’s fiction, and the two men who originally brought them to life, J M Barrie and Lewis Carroll.
Frustratingly, however, despite some moving and thought-provoking musings on the path from childhood to adulthood and what it really means to ‘grow up’, Peter and Alice fails to live up to expectations.
Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, did meet Peter Llewelyn Davies, on whom J M Barrie based Peter Pan, at an exhibition held at Columbia University in New York City in 1932, and it is this encounter that John Logan has taken as the starting point for Peter and Alice. The initial set is a rather dilapidated library, with boxes and papers scattered about. It’s old and mouldy, and the glass roof is encrusted with dirt. In a nice touch, if you look closely you can see a small wooden theatre, a toy white rabbit and the model of a pirate ship (presumably the Jolly Roger from Peter Pan). Into this tired space enters an equally dishevelled Peter Llewelyn Davies (Ben Whishaw), unshaven and wearing ill-fitting clothes. Shortly afterwards he is joined by the elderly Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Judi Dench), who is smartly turned out in a flower-print dress, fur stole and hat. And so begins a verbal tussle between these two characters, as the lost man Peter is determined for them to probe their childhoods in the hope that this will offer insight into the adults they have become, while Alice is reticent and cynical (‘I committed no deeds worthy of reportage,’ is how she comments on her life) and initially refuses to be drawn into a discussion about her alter ego.
Whishaw gives a good performance as the conflicted, bitter Peter, who ‘turned to drink in order to forget’. He is nervous and twitchy, intense and desperate. Obsessed with investigating what it means to grow up (it’s ‘realising what life is’) and with the inevitability of death, he forces Alice to really think about her childhood and the power that Carroll’s stories still exert on her, even though she’s now eighty years old. Dench is good, too, particularly when uttering caustic one-liners or withering put-downs in response to Peter’s persistent questioning (‘What child wants to be immortal?’ ‘What child doesn’t think he isn’t?’). Logan doesn’t allow Peter much chance to develop, but Dench is given more to work with, and she manages to pull off both the stoic, pragmatic (and rather waspish) Alice at the start and the sad, broken Alice in the closing stages. This later Alice is one who realises that both her character and Peter Pan were ‘born out of sadness and loneliness’, and that the Alice of Carroll’s novels took something from her.
I’m not sure why Logan decided to add Lewis Carroll and J M Barrie and the characters of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan (at times also playing the young Alice Liddell Hargreaves and Peter Llewelyn Davies), especially when many of these extra scenes and conversations were unnecessary. A dramatist such as Logan should be able to engage an audience for 90 minutes in a conversation between the grown-up Alice and Peter; when Logan is firing on all cylinders he gives these two some great verbal exchanges leaving you with the feeling that a successful two-hander would have had much more emotional and intellectual impact. The effect of conversations with the authors and the occasional interjections of the fictional Alice and Peter diluted rather than enhanced the serious themes debated in the play, though some might argue that Peter Pan offered some welcome light relief, with his boyish energy and comic lines.
Peter and Alice is concerned with important ideas – the power of literature; the relationships between adults and children, mothers and sons; the innocence of childhood that gives way to the suffering and disillusionment of adulthood – but these are common themes and, despite a few loaded lines, Logan’s exploration of them feels rather thin. Peter and Alice packs an emotional punch at the end, but I was moved more by the revelation of tragic events in the pasts of both Peter and Alice than I was by Logan’s script, and those facts I could have discovered from Wikipedia.