Peter and Alice Review
John Logan’s new play Peter and Alice comes fresh on the heels of Red, his much-acclaimed play exploring Rothko. Peter and Alice is an exploration of the rumoured meeting of Peter Llewellyn Davies and Alice Hargreaves – the muses of J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll (Rvd. Charles Dodgson) – and how that conversation may have unfolded.
Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench are the lynchpins, as Peter and Alice respectively. Logan meshes ideas of reality, escapism, and the intangible realities of ‘growing up’ in a way that strives for brilliance – and fails. The dialogue is gratuitous and unflinchingly eloquent, so caught in its own cleverness that it loses the essence of what it tries to communicate; Alice is a self-involved woman hopelessly lost in her own fantasies, while Peter has become so bitterly disillusioned he is practically a caricature.
Whishaw and Dench struggle valiantly against the unwealdy script – and their most beautiful moments are those divorced entirely from dialogue. Whishaw’s Peter is impossibly pained through most of the script – and yet.
There is a moment of sheer transcendence, as a disillusioned young man becomes caught up in the fantasy world he promised to never inhabit, and flies. He laughs, giggles, cleaves to Barrie’s side in a child’s attempt to be loved, to never be forgotten, a sharp contrast to the broken man the audience has come to know. He is all physicality, no speech, finally becoming Peter Pan, rather than condemning himself to the excruciating world of Peter Davies.
This moment lasts for approximately fifteen seconds, and is gone – replaced by the heart-rending horror and self-hatred of a man who promised himself he would never remember. Those fifteen seconds are perhaps the most heartbreakingly beautiful of the entire production.
Logan’s play is heavily biased towards Alice. Hers is the more complex character; a girl, who almost grows up, decides she doesn’t like it, and then escapes into childhood. She lives vicariously through a character who never existed, never growing up, never changing – while the ‘boy who never grew up’ is older, in many respects, than she has ever been.
Unfortunately, while this allows great scope for Alice – who slides in and out of her memories so easily – it allows little for the terminally depressed Peter, who is barred his escape. He grew up, became ‘mad’ (echoed ad nauseam with the children’s inevitable bleating we’re all mad here, which is frankly a little trite), and lost everything – his childhood included. Peter’s story is very difficult to capture, and this is where Logan falls flat. A pity; with more texture, more depth beyond the simple fact of a broken man, and the play would be transformed into something far more poignant.
Within this tricky role, Whishaw does surprisingly well. His selling point is the fragility, vulnerability that he is able to convey – and was thus aptly cast. A less sympathetic-looking actor would have come across as petulant in his depressive bitterness; Whishaw has a breakable air, which he uses excellently to his advantage throughout. His final speech is delivered with an understated devastation – voice finally shattering, gestures tremulous – and the afore-mentioned fifteen seconds as his younger self simply stole the show.
Dench is blessed with, quite simply, more to do – and she does. I was honestly sceptical about her, in this production; the two live productions I’ve seen in recent years involving Dench, (Madame de Sade, and Midsummer Night’s Dream), she was somewhat typecast as an upper-class battleaxe, perpetually disapproving. Peter and Alice was gorgeous, by comparison, Dench truly showing the various facets of Alice with physical and emotional excellence.
The truly standout performance of the night has received lamentably little notice: Olly Alexander, as the memory/embodiment of ‘Peter Pan’, is truly remarkable. He manages the Blue Remembered Hills feat of being an adult in a child’s body, and is completely flawless within that. Alexander is twenty-three years old, at least a foot taller than Judi Dench, and yet is entirely at home at a young boy playing pirates, playing with his feet as babies do, rolling around on the floor in that distracted way children do when adults are speaking things children cannot understand.
He is the true escape, for everybody present. The audience is taken in and out of worlds via his Peter; Logan allows the character representations (Alice is present too, played by Ruby Bentall) to guide the action, in and out of a suspended half-reality. Alexander catcalls and jokes and sobers, is horrified at his older counterpart’s stories, forgets an instant later, and is utterly compelling throughout. He guides a young Alice into Neverland, an older Alice into her memories, even – for a moment or two – his older counterpart, into forgetting. Bentall, as Alice, cannot really manage that; Dench overlaps with her so much that her role is near-enough redundant. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is there to balance the stage with ‘Peter Pan’, not as a character in her own right.
Derek Riddell, and Nicholas Farrell – both great actors in their own rights – are not exactly given gifts of roles (Barrie and Carroll respectively). Ultimately, they were very forgettable. Both were there as vehicles only, to facilitate the journey of Peter and Alice, and so lost any real personality of their own; again, with a little more depth, their stories could have been lovely counters to their ‘dream-children’.
The set design was beautiful. I’ve seen a number of Christopher Oram sets: Hamlet, Madame de Sade, Twelfth Night (all Grandage) were gorgeous, as were A Streetcar Named Desire and Passion at the Donmar Warehouse. I am honestly inclined to believe the man can do no wrong in design terms. Truly sublime.
Grandage does have a flair for melodrama, in his directorial style. Hamlet (Jude Law’s acclaimed version, which transferred to Broadway), was melancholic in a way that I personally found abhorrent. Equally, Twelfth Night/Madame de Sade wallowed in their own self-pity, which in the case of Twelfth Night was a genuine achievement – it is, and should be, funny. I have tried my level best with Grandage productions, and I am forced to concede that I cannot abide his style.
Ah, well. In any case, between the angst Grandage systematically injects through his direction, and the already-melodramatic script, dramatic points are occasionally sledge-hammered where deftness is required. The constant theme of loss that plagues Peter becomes overwhelming; the loss of Peter’s brothers, family, world is so overdone, that by the time the audience reaches the climax of the piece – and the absolute, blinding tragedy of Peter and Alice’s fates – the impact is entirely lost. It all melds in a melee of misery, and thus what should be a stab in the throat is a mere sting.
Overall, it is a play of missed opportunities. Whishaw and Dench have some beautiful moments, but the script gives them little freedom to truly shine. Alexander is a revelation, and one to look out for in future years. Logan is a tremendous disappointment, especially in the light of Red, and Grandage once again directs with regrettably little subtlety. Visually luscious – thanks to Christopher Oram – but, ultimately, fails to pack the emotional punch the content merits. It could, and should, have been so much. It is oddly annoying, and upsetting, that it is not.