First night: Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward Theatre is a rare Grandage dud

3.00

 

Peter and Alice seemed to have everything going for it. It marks the reunion of director Michael Grandage and the three-times Oscar-nominated author, John Logan, with whom he had such a success on both sides of the Atlantic with Red, the latter's play about Mark Rothko. It mouthwateringly deposits Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw on the same stage (on screen, they have appeared together as M and Q and in the Logan-scripted Skyfall). And, last but not least, the play kicks off from a premise that yammers with potential.

At the real-life opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932, Alice Liddell Hargreaves (then 80) found herself face to face with Peter Llewelyn Davies (then 35). The original Alice in Wonderland crossed paths with the original Peter Pan. Christopher Robin Milne penned several books about the difficult experience of being irrevocably associated with the Pooh stories. Alice and Peter did not put on record how they coped with living in the lengthy shadow of a fictional alter ego. There's the difference, too,  that Dodgson and Barrie were family friends rather than fathers and that Peter was one of several brothers in the tragic family to whom Barrie took on a paternal role after the death from cancer of the head of the clan, Arthur Llewelyn Davies.

So Logan is free to speculate in a conjectural version of the couple's encounter that heads off into a sort of a sort of fantasia of memories and intersecting dreams. Preserved in the contrasting permanent youthfulness of the books, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland watch and play a sometimes competitive role. At its best, it's a play about how, for this pair, the ordinary human fear of embracing the fact of adulthood, reality and death was (arguably) exacerbated by the over-intensity of their contact with writers so imaginatively exercised by the temptations (and penalties) of arrested development. And how, with excruciating irony, death rained its blows on both.

But the piece, to my mind, is also laboured and over-written and, though it does not accuse the authors of actual paedophilia, it smears their reputations on the basis of little hard evidence. You brace yourself for a scene in Dodgson's photographic dark room. And the books are slighted as dubious sublimations of real-life incidents rather than as brilliantly imaginative coping-mechanisms that in many ways resist Logan's flat-minded decoding. 

Dench and Whishaw are incapable of giving bad performances and he brings to Peter his wonderful capacity to make sensitivity and anguish compelling and she lends to Alice her brilliance at combining a sense of tart, witty combativeness with a reverberant depth of bruised humanity. But the proceedings reminded me at times more of oratorio than drama and the dialogue often sounds forced (“Have you considered your memoirs?” “Considered them as what?) as it hoists its way into the auditorium. There is lots of that “fine writing” which turns out not to be so fine when you really listen. Take the redundant intensifier at the  beginning of Alice's description of Dodgson: “The maladroit stutter...”; the adjective would earn its keep better if one had ever run into people who stutter adroitly. 

At the end of Dennis Potter's excellent movie Dreamchild, the elderly Alice (played by Coral Browne) has the sudden shaming memory of how she once impressed her friends by mocking Dodgson's stutter and of the pain that caused when he noticed. It leads her to an eventual realisation how deeply he must have loved her. You don't get that kind of magnanimity here. The evening strikes me as that true rarity: a Grandage dud.

To June 6; 0844 482 5141

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015