Noël Coward Theatre
30th March, 2013
This review was written for the theatre blog What's Peen Seen but the reviewer is also a guest-reviewer for us. Here is a longer version of the review:
Skyfall stars Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw reunite in Bond film screenplay writer John Logan’s new play about Alice Liddell Hargreaves and Peter Llewelyn Davies, the muses behind Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Following an imagined conversation the two might have had when meeting each other in the back of a bookshop in 1932, Peter and Alice marks the second play in the Michael Grandage Season.
Judi Dench says early on in the play ‘Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland in one room’ which not only sums up the play but is also telling of how these characters have led their lives being so closely linked to their literary alter-egos. The play is bookended (perhaps quite literally) with a bookshop design representing how their lives have been trapped in fiction, a metaphor brilliantly conveyed in Christopher Oram’s design.
The majority of the play, however, takes place when the bookshop disappears to reveal a toy theatre set where we see Llewelyn Davies and Liddell Hargreaves relive experiences pleasant and traumatic from their youth. I fully believed that Dench became an excited girl again only to fade when realising that she has to grow up, reflecting that marriage seemed like a “resignation to something so vast”. Both of them present the binary forces of longing to go back to childhood and all its simplicity as well as trying to escape from it. An interesting truth that Logan presents is how we long for adulthood when we’re children, but then complain of the brevity of childhood when the notion of growing up dawns upon us. But this isn’t a new idea and one that even reminds me of Matilda the musical.
The ending is truly sad: there is neatness in the way the theatre curtain of the toy theatre closed as the bookshop set came back down, perhaps as if drawing a close on the story of their lives. There is sadness in Alice’s acknowledgment that no one will remember her in 100 years’ time but they will remember Alice in Wonderland and so the real Alice decides to take comfort in living as her. So even though this is impractical, she dies old and happy. Peter, on the other hand, admits ‘I’ve grown up’ away from Peter Pan. So he accepts reality, but others will always know him as the boy who never grew up as shown in the newspaper headlines ‘Peter Pan joins army, Peter Pan marries, Peter Pan opens publishing firm’. He can’t escape that image projected onto him by others and by JM Barrie and thus dies fairly young by jumping In front of a tube train – a striking end line delivered, perhaps cruelly, perhaps fittingly, by Olly Alexander who plays Peter Pan.
The acting by the whole cast is mesmerising but especially by the two leads. There is a moment when Dench bursts into tears when it’s revealed that her children have died in the war, but the play is made all the more moving by Adam Cook’s sound design which ensures that the cast’s echoes reflect echoes of the past.
After seeing FindingNeverland at Leicester’s Curve last year, I realise the creators of the musical might have glossed over some of the painful realities that Llewelyn Davies later faced in his life. Growing up, the mundanities and responsibilities of adulthood and the idea of literature as a safe-haven all seem to be themes which are very much à la mode in theatre and all explored even further by Logan.
John Logan’s enjoyable play might be predictable and may not offer us anything new, but Grandage’s smooth direction and the superlative acting of Dench and Whishaw make this a highly-recommended piece of theatre. At the performance I attended, Dench seemed to be struggling with a cough but she excellently kept in character and accepted a drink of water from Whishaw’s cup at one moment, which exemplifies the closeness of these two professionals. To conclude, Peter and Alice is a brilliantly acted play that will put a smile on your face but which is also extremely touching.
Due to the huge amount of £10 seats on offer for this season, I imagine many theatregoers will be plucking for the balcony, which I fully recommend. The view is decent, the leg room is ample, and the seats are comfy and wide – certainly much more so than the Dress Circle for my experience of Gatz last year.
Peter and Alice runs at the Noël Coward Theatre until 1st June, 2013