“We’re practically our own children’s book department”
Second up for the Michael Grandage season at the Noël Coward Theatre is the only new play out of the programme of five – John Logan’s Peter and Alice. Logan’s stock is riding high both as a screenwriter – a 3-time Academy Award nominee and most recently responsible for Skyfall – and a playwright – his last play Red was well-received on both sides of the Atlantic – and the premise of this play, a meeting between the woman who inspired Alice in Wonderland and the man who gave his name to Peter Pan, is one that certainly showed promise. But after attending this preview performance, it is not abundantly clear that this promise has been fulfilled.
The play sparks off of the real life meeting between Peter Llewelyn Davies and Alice Liddell Hargreaves at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932, aged 35 and 80 respectively, and imagines a conversation in which they share stories of being so closely involved with 2 key figures of children’s literature. Llewelyn Davies was one of the brood of brothers with whom JM Barrie became very close and wrote Peter Pan for, and Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, wrote Alice in Wonderland after first recounting the story to Liddell Hargreaves on a family boat trip. Thus their places in literary history were sealed and Logan explores not just how their lives consequently rolled out but also touches on their relationships with the writers and the characters they inspired.
It is an ambitiously wordy play – little ‘happens’ per se – and intricate in its layeredness as it delves back into the murky relationships that existed between artist and muse, the family tragedies that blighted their lives, the personal disappointments endured by both. But though there is a great esotericism at work, too often the writing feels vague and baggy. Grandage’s production labours its way through the 90 minutes of the running time and though this could yet sharpen up as the run progresses, there is no hiding from the essentially static nature of the piece and the rather over-indulgent approach to its subjects.
The possible questions that arise from the closeness of the older male writers to their pre-pubescent subjects are not interrogated to any meaningful degree and harsh as it may seem, the trials that Alice and Peter faced in their lives are ultimately no more special for their rarefied status and consequently the show’s most affecting moment thus comes off as a little glib as theirs were far from the only families to be devastated by the First World War. Logan’s incorporation of the fictitious characters did little for me in the end and though there are moments of lyrical elegance, they felt few and far between in what resulted as a puzzling piece of theatre.
Where the show succeeds is in the heavyweight lead casting that has characterised Grandage’s foray into the West End. Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw head up this cast and though the script is weighted in favour of the former (an apology for Skyfall perhaps…?), both imbue their performances with a transformative grace that enriches the script considerably, both justifying their star billing with subtly understated yet affecting power. Derek Riddell’s borderline Barrie makes more impact than Nicholas Farrell’s rather bland Carroll and neither Olly Alexander’s screechily hyperactive Peter Pan or Ruby Bentall’s overly mannered were for me.
A good proportion of the packed-out theatre gave a standing ovation at the end, obviously pleased with what they had seen but for me, this was a disappointing night at the theatre, underwhelming in both its writing and direction.