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.
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