Saturday 23rd March 2013, matinée
Approaching the Noel Coward Theatre for the matinée performance of ‘Peter and Alice’, the latest outing for the Michael Grandage Company, we were quite surprised to see the ‘House Full’ sign out and a long queue for returns. With a cast including Judi Dench, we would expect a great deal of interest, but we can’t help feeling that the ‘Q and M’ factor may also be at work, with Dench, who now plays ‘M’ in the Bond films reuniting with her ‘Q’, Ben Wishaw, who also has some impressive stage credentials. The main question in our minds was whether the new material would be worthy of such a cast.
Peter and Alice is a result of one of those ‘interesting facts’ chanced upon by writer John Logan (who as the writer for Skyfall completes the Bond triumvirate), about a meeting between Alice Liddell Hargreaves, who was the inspiration for ‘Alice in Wonderland’, and Peter Llewelyn Davies, who gave his name, if not his personality, to Peter Pan. Most of us might have our curiosity similarly piqued at the idea of these two figures meeting up, but we’re not sure how many people might think it would make a good play. Not exactly a drama, the play gradually tells the story of their lives through the characters they were associated with, and it transpires that the connections were more tenuous than we thought. Apparently it was Peter’s brother Michael who provided the true inspiration for the character of the boy who never grew up, but presumably Peter Pan sounded better than Michael Man, so his name was borrowed.
The lack of dramatic tension is a key problem with the play itself. The meeting, though potentially intriguing, is ultimately a non-story. The stakes are low, and the format is too fragile to carry the large weight of emotional baggage which is piled onto it. Interestingly, some of the points of fact which might have given the story more of a punch, are left out, particularly some of the circumstances of Peter’s death. The staging itself doesn’t really add much to the story – this could easily be a radio play, and one can even imagine getting more out of it without the visuals. Essentially, we are told about the action rather than shown it, and although there are some moving accounts and reminiscences, it is very difficult to stay engaged and involved without a plot to hold them together or a sense of where they are going, either intellectually or emotionally. Similarly the visual style is not particularly imaginative, which is rather ironic given that the story involves two of the most imaginative literary talents we have. Having both Lewis Carroll and J M Barrie on stage only reminds us of a more interesting topic, the creative process and the ways in which the interactions between the adult writers and their child-muses led to these classic works being written. Whist there are allusions to this there is no real exploration. Comparisons are odious, but we can’t help thinking of the work of Shared Experience in Bronte and Mary Shelley which offered so many insights into the literary minds of the writers depicted. The other major theme of the play, the First World War, has also been given so many more sophisticated and moving treatments, not least in the recently revived Journey’s End, that the accounts in this play pale by comparison.
We can’t complain about the cast, all of whom did their best with the material. A special mention needs to go to Nicholas Farrell as Lewis Carroll, whose talents were shockingly wasted. We also found it rather jarring to cast the two fictional characters, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, with adults, who really didn’t have a hope of capturing the childlike innocence about which the play is so rhapsodic. Without that element of authenticity (albeit a fictional one), the play seems even more contrived. Judi Dench wrings as much humour as she can from the verbal sparring, and is of course imposing as the eighty year old woman who has finally come to find some solace in her status as the ‘real Alice’, but once again we would have liked to see her rise to a greater challenge. This was our first sight of Ben Wishaw on stage, and we had high expectations following his transformational TV version of Richard II. A master of passive aggression and vulnerability, he certainly brought plenty to the table, although we did have one small beef from our positions in the balcony seats. Whether it was down to floppy hair, or rusty stage technique we rarely saw his face. So we hope to see more of him next time he takes the stage, literally and metaphorically.
It is not often that we leave a ninety minute play wanting less rather than more, and one does wonder how such a flimsy piece has managed to get so easily into the West End.