Peter And Alice- Noel Coward Theatre
*As usual, spoilers abound, mainly about the plot line and the set details. If you want surprises if you are seeing the play, read no further. If not, then come on in! I will admit that this isn’t as silly as some of my other reviews but it is quite a serious play and a bit difficult to make jokes about. Fun will resume next time! Also the pictures don’t line up and it is really annoying me but I’m not sure why so you will have to bear with me on this one.*
It is a little bit of a flukey miracle that I am even able to write this review for you. Having had difficulty pinning down a date, some time when I knew I could do cropped up, I checked the website for tickets and was confronted, to my horror, with rows and rows of little black sold out dots. By some glorious twist of fate, as my mother rang to ask about the returns queue, two practically front row seats came back which we promptly snapped up. To say that I was grateful and excited was somewhat of an understatement!
I must begin my review by making a confession. I was not initially drawn to Peter and Alice for its storyline or the prospect of watching a new play by acclaimed author John Logan. It was the casting of Mr Ben Whishaw and Dame Judi Dench (seen most recently as working together as Q and M in the recent Bond adventure Skyfall) which drew me to it. I would most likely have seen anything that paired these two. I think Mr Whishaw is an incredibly talented man who I have admired since watching his outstanding performance in Richard II on the BBC last summer and there is little more to be said about Dame Judi Dench than that she is Dame Judi Dench.
Despite my somewhat shallow reasons perhaps for wanting to see this play, what I found was that Peter and Alice is an unbearably beautiful and surprisingly sad piece of theatre. I wasn’t sure how the story of the meeting of Alice Liddell Hargreaves and Peter Llewelyn Davies, the inspirations for two of the greatest children’s characters known to the world (I think you might be able to guess which two), would pan out and how author John Logan would create a work that would be engaging and feel like it was worth watching. Logan succeeded in creating magic as he wove the various characters in and out of each others lives in a way that was not chronological or made any particular sense, like falling down the rabbit hole into the tangle and mess that was the lives of both Peter and Alice. Ultimately what Logan created was a script which showed the immense sadness of both his protagonists lives, two grown adults who had been forced to be immortalised as children and continuing on forever into their adult lives in the shadow of those characters far bigger and more magical than themselves.
The set, designed by Christopher Oram, was enchanting to say the least. It began as the dusty storeroom of the bookshop in which Alice was to present the centenary celebrations of Lewis Carroll (or Revered Dodgson as we come to know him) and in which Peter has come in his capacity as a publisher to persuade her to sell him her memoirs. As we delve into the storyline the old shop is hoisted away to reveal a great Victorian picture book, decorated beautifully in bright reds and vivid yellows with scenes from the respective novels surrounding the border. We see the Mock Turtle, the Duchess and her pig baby, Captain Hook’s ship, all recreations of original illustrations. (It seemed that way to me, I’m not entirely sure though!) The fact that such serious matters as the devastation of World War I, the heartbreaking loneliness of old age and the loss of beloved family members took place under the watchful gaze of the characters from these books really brought home the theme of being trapped by someone else’s creation, having it consistently hanging around one’s neck. I thought it was also very effective for the two protagonists to remain in their costume and not to blend in with the surroundings that were revealed, in particular Whishaw standing there in his brown and green suit, totally at odds with the flamboyant decoration he stood amongst.
The performances of both Whishaw and Dench were truly excellent, I don’t really think either of them can be faulted. In fact, I felt disappointed as the 90 minutes flew by and I had to leave the presence of two such performers. I could have sat and watched them both all day. Whishaw began our play, walking on stage whilst the house lights were still up and the audience jabbered away. When he arrived the hush fell and we watched him nervously tramp up and down the stage, looking for a cigarette and tugging at his hair. Whishaw plays sad, sensitive characters extremely well, one only has to look through his CV to see John Keats and Richard II amongst his roles. And he was just as wonderful here as Peter, a man damaged not only by his association with Peter Pan but also by the horror of being sent to fight in World War I and watching his family members fall before him, first his father, then mother and then youngest brother Michael. We saw, through Whishaw, a boy who had wished he hadn’t had to grow up and could remain like his namesake forever. One particularly powerful speech showed Ben revert Peter back to his childhood state, a young boy standing alone on the stage having just seen Peter Pan for the first time and wishing with all his might that Neverland might have existed behind those great painted flats. Equally powerful, but far less joyful, was the description of the first time Peter killed a man during the war. One could see every emotion conducted through Ben’s eyes, all the fear and the self loathing and disgust as he described how bodies could not be stood on lest you rupture the stomach and release the gas and how he wasn’t even sure if the man was a German, he had merely shot him because he was there. Whishaw is an extremely soulful performer and instilled every part of Peter with a sense of awful melancholy, something that was reflected in the tragic end of the real Peter who, we find out as the final line, threw himself under a London tube train.
Dame Judi gives a similarly wonderful and soulful performance, although Alice’s outlook on life is far more hopeful than poor Peter. What was so remarkable about her performance was the ability to slip between the 80 year old Alice and the 10 year old Alice of her childhood memories without seeming ridiculous or overly childish. We were given the impression that she was no longer an old lady but little Alice whose eyes were constantly filled with wonder and joy which Dench never allowed to become over the top or silly. The balance between the somewhat sarcastic older Alice and innocent little young Alice proved for very pleasurable viewing with Dench getting the majority of the laughs in the show. The nuances of her performance were spellbinding, in particular the awful, heart wrenching moment in which the letters announcing the deaths of her two sons were reeled off to the sounds of booming cannons as the audience watched Dench collapse onto a stool, shaking with painful sobs. I must say it made for uncomfortable viewing.
The decision by Logan to create the characters of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland made something truly special materialise. They acted as a kind of subconscious, communicating with the inspiration for their being, reprimanding them for becoming dull and too grown up. One particularly powerful sequence shows Peter and Alice have their worst fears, their worst traits ‘He likes gin, she doesn’t love all her children the same” chanted back at them by Peter Pan (played with great gusto and jollity by Olly Alexander) and Alice in Wonderland (played by Ruby Bentall) as if it were all some wonderful game, taunts by two children who have absorbed the life of the people who inspired them. I must comment on Olly Alexander’s performance. He was the best presence on stage after Whishaw and Dench and was enormous fun to watch in a production that was on the whole rather bleak. He successfully maintained the “UUUUURGH GIRLS” attitude of Pan, especially in his refusal to dance with the rather fanciful Alice, eventually giving in with a cry of “OH ALL RIGHT, STOP LOOKING AT ME WITH THOSE GREAT COW EYES”, which gave rise to a huge audience laugh. He brought a real sense of childish fun to the production and contrasted hugely with Whishaw, who is beautifully soft spoken and understated in his movements. The contrast between inspiration and creation is interesting as it perhaps demonstrates the change between the little boy Peter Davies once was and the changes that war and loss can inflict upon a soul.
Ultimately this is a play about loss, pain and grief which was stunningly and powerfully executed by all involved. It was a night of intensely thought provoking theatre, one which forces its audience to think upon their own golden afternoons of childhood and how they grew up. If you are looking for laughs you won’t really find them here but take a leap down into Wonderland and I’m sure you won’t be disappointed. I know I wasn’t.
Peter and Alice is on at the Noel Coward Theatre and runs until June 1st