John Logan’s new play Peter and Alice explores the meeting between Alice Liddell Hargreaves and Peter Llewelyn Davies at the Lewis Carroll Centenary Exhibition on 28th June 1932 at the London bookshop Bumpus.
As a child, Liddell was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and at the age of eighty was at the exhibition to perform the opening ceremony.
Thirty-five year old Davies had his childhood defined by writer J M Barrie who publicly identified him as the source of the name for the title character in Peter Pan, something which was to plague Davies throughout his life, which ended in suicide in 1960. In fact, according to family accounts and mentioned during the play, Peter’s brothers George and Michael were likely to be the primary models for the character of Peter Pan.
When Alice, played by Judi Dench, realises she is in the presence of Ben Whishaw’s Peter Pan she exclaims “We’re practically our own children’s book department.”
The two actors are reunited having starred in last year’s James Bond film Skyfall, also written by Logan, where Ben Whishaw played Q and Judi Dench M.
Logan takes Hargreaves and Davies on a journey, travelling from Peter Pan’s Neverland to Alice’s Wonderland, exploring where the characters were created, focusing on their childhood encounters with James Barrie and Lewis Carroll (Reverend Charles Dodgson) respectively.
Reliving childhood fantasies is never the same as when you were a child and when Peter and Alice also recount the adult realities of loss, death and illness that affected both of them, this play becomes an emotional roller-coaster.
No matter what the spoken word is, when you listen to Judi Dench perform on stage you want to grab every line, put it in a bottle, and save it for a rainy day. While she is aging she is also ageless. At the start of the play she is an eighty-year-old but when reliving her youth she has a spring in her step and the cheeky smile of a child.
Ben Whishaw plays the part of the depressed Peter admirably and is a brilliant foil on stage for Judi Dench’s Alice. Defining his own character, Whishaw delivers the following line with a certain melancholy: “When I look at my own children Mrs Hargreaves, I think I know what childhood’s for. It’s to give us a bank of happy memories against future suffering. So when sadness comes, at least you can remember what it was to be happy.”
Other cast members include Derek Riddell, playing the part of James Barrie, and Nicholas Farrell, playing Lewis Carroll (Rev Charles Hodgson). Riddell is brilliant as he shows Barrie as the more assured of the two writers with his inner torment surfacing on occasions. Farrell is superb in his portrayal of the subservient Carroll who is mesmerised by the young Alice, doting on her every word and action.
The storybook characters are played admirably by Olly Alexander as the exuberant Peter Pan and Ruby Bentall as the imaginative Alice in Wonderland. Stefano Brasch completes the cast with a solid performance as Arthur Davies and Reginald Hargreaves.
At the heart of the play are Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw recreating the agony and the ecstasy of inherited fame, while also reminding us of the journey from childhood into adulthood, epitomised by Alice Liddell’s line: “Is there a moment when we grow up?”
Review by Neil Cheesman @LondonTheatre1
Monday 6th May 2013