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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
PETER AND ALICE
at the Noel Coward

STORYBOOK CHARACTERS
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Ben Whishaw, Derek Riddell, Stefano Braschi, Olly Alexander, Ruby Bentall and Judi Dench/ Ph: Johan Persson

If ever an occasion demonstrated that expectation is greater than fulfillment, it’s John Logan’s Peter and Alice.

Consider the pedigree. Logan’s last play, the multi-award-winning Red, about the artist Mark Rothko, was a commercial and critical success both in the West End and on Broadway. Logan provided the screenplay for the recent Bond blockbuster Skyfall, and has had three Oscar nominations. His cast includes the miraculous Judi Dench and the equally charismatic Ben Whishaw, while the director is the sizzlingly hot Michael Grandage.

Best of all, though, is the idea behind the play. Logan’s springboard is a confrontation between Alice Liddell Hargreaves and Peter Llewelyn Davies, both of whom were the inspiration for, arguably, the two most enduring characters in children’s literature – Alice in "Alice in Wonderland" and Peter in "Peter Pan."

They met at a Lewis Carroll exhibition in a bookshop in 1932. She, at the time, was an impoverished 80-year-old who had to sell the original Alice manuscript to pay her debts; he was one of five brothers for whom J.M. Barrie became a surrogate father when their real dad died of cancer of the jaw. She was a widow; he was an unhappily married 35-year-old publisher.

The fates of both Peter and Alice, whose various tragedies could not be more different from the fictional fantasies they inspired, provides Logan with the kind of irony custom-made for great drama. How heartbreaking that Barrie’s spirited creation – a boy who would never grow up – became a disillusioned wife-beating alcoholic unable to cope with adulthood and who ended his life by throwing himself under a tube train. And how sad that Alice – immortal as fiction but forgotten in old age – would lose two sons in the Great War and fall on hard times.

Though the real-life encounter between Peter and Alice was brief, Logan’s instinct to build on the meeting by bringing into the narrative their fictional alter-egos as well as Lewis Carroll (Nicholas Farrell) and J.M. Barrie (Derek Riddell), the men who created them, is spot on. It is, I repeat, a great idea for a play.

But great ideas don’t always make great plays, and Logan’s handling of the material promises far more than it delivers. Reality melds into fantasy as he interweaves scenes of the fictional Alice (Ruby Bentall) and Peter (Olly Alexander) with their real-life alter egos and attempts to put in context the lasting influence on the adults by the an adoring Carroll and a generous but controlling Barrie. For Alice Hargreaves, memories of her childhood were, it would appear, sustaining; for Llewelyn Davies they were haunted. 

Running just over 80 minutes without intermission, the evening is too short to pursue in depth any of the issues raised. The unabbreviated story of the Llewelyn Davies family and Barrie’s involvement with them is profoundly moving and has never been better told than in Andrew Birkin’s superb three-part BBC drama The Lost Boys. Here it is far too sketchy to make much of an impact.

Logan makes it clear there was no inappropriate sexual behaviour in either case, but the issue is barely referenced. His dialogue tends, on occasion, to be self-consciously arch. Nor is there much of a dramatic narrative arc or any escalating tension in the stories being told. It’s all too bitty. 

What justify the price of admission, however, are the two central performances. Dench, who is close in age to Alice Hargreaves in the play, covers an emotional spectrum not always evident in the script. Her trademark ability to provide the most mundane word or phrase with a nuance, gesture or inflexion capable of excavating a lifetime of experience, is astonishing. Logan should be on his knees in gratitude for her ability to make the most with the least. 

She is more than capably matched by Whishaw, a young actor of rare sensitivity whose very hang-dog appearance as Llewelyn Davies gives notice of a deeply troubled soul who, unlike Alice Hargreaves, has been destroyed by his fictional fame and its accompanying baggage.

Logan’s text prevents the supporting performers from making much of an impression, but Christopher Oram’s sets, especially those appropriately inspired by Pollock’s Toy Theatres, are most attractive.

It’s directed with the efficiency you’d expect from Grandage.

 


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