Peter and Alice, Noël Coward Theatre, March 2013Posted on 25 March 2013
Imagine yourself, as a child, the subject of a book — the protagonist in a series of whimsical adventures that happen around you. How would it affect your future life? Being true to yourself and dispensing with the image formed by millions of readers may be hard. And does it make any difference whether you’re a girl or a boy? In this play there is one of each, the Peter of Peter Pan and the Alice of Alice in Wonderland.
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They are quite different. Peter Llewelyn Davies and his four brothers were informally adopted by J M Barrie after their father’s death, and Barrie publicly indentified him as ‘the original Peter Pan’. By contrast, Alice Liddell, daughter of scholar Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford, was only twice in her life alone in the company of Rev Charles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll) who wrote the Alice books. At least that is what she says in this new play by Peter Logan.
The play refers to a break between Charles Dodgson and the Liddell family in June 1863 when Alice was 11, and associates this to Alice’s feeling uncomfortable in Dodgson’s company once when he took a photograph of her (he was a keen amateur photographer). But the central truth in this drama is a meeting between Peter and Alice that took place at Columbia University in America on the centenary of Dodgson’s birth in 1932 when Alice was 80. It was the first time that Peter Llewelyn Davies, aged 35, had met the widow Mrs. Alice Liddell Hargreaves, and Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench brought their characters very much to life.
As they talk, the young Alice and the young Peter join them, along with J M Barrie and Charles Dodgson, brilliantly played by Nicholas Farrell. Judi Dench brings out razor-sharp responses from Alice, as if she were one of the queens in Through the Looking Glass, overwhelming Peter with her intelligence and insight. As present meets past we see the proposal from her future husband Reginald Hargreaves, nervous that a girl from her intellectual background will simply dismiss him.
When the meeting between Peter and Alice took place, the First World War was over, and the world they grew up in was gone. We hear of Peter’s searing experience in that war, and at the end of the play we find out he committed suicide by jumping in front of an Underground train at Sloane Square in 1960. By contrast, Alice died peacefully two years after this meeting.
Good set and costume designs by Christopher Oram, and lighting by Paule Constable, served this Michael Grandage production very well. Fine acting — and I went for the actors — but I found its 90 minutes insufficiently compelling.
Performances continue until June 1 — for details click here.