Peter and Alice
John Logan’s latest theatrical offering, Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward Theatre, explores the impact of lost childhood through the prism of those who sought to immortalise it. An aged Alice Liddell (Judi Dench), the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s character, and a middle-aged Peter Llewelyn Davies (Ben Whishaw), J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, come face-to-face in a play that explores what it is for a person to become a character. Logan’s drama revels in this meta-theatricality, with each protagonist joined onstage by their literary representation and the author who created them. As the six actors marshal the stage, Michael Grandage offers unobtrusive direction that nevertheless maintains some sense of vigour to the loquacious, often cerebral, script. Indeed, Logan’s dialogue is startlingly at odds with his source material; where Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan are noted for their imaginative action, Peter and Alice is more concerned with the process of story-telling elicited through memory.
As Alice and Peter probe one another’s histories, a startling realisation occurs: each has been robbed of a childhood by the man who was supposed to protect them. Though neither describes any physical molestation, Peter is even explicit in his refutation, both feel a sense of emotional abuse at having been forced to deal with adult affections that they were too young to understand. As the real Alice and Peter struggle to break free from their literary representations, one comes to understand that the personae are not the preserve of childhood but a prison within which the authors sought to contain their wards. This is symbolically recreated onstage through the photographic sessions that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) had Alice sit for; here, Alice becomes trapped on his glass, never to age, never to break through to the real world.
The inability for the real Alice and Peter to live up to their literary personae in the eyes of their authors reaches its zenith near the conclusion of the play when the child characters turn on their forbearers with malice. We begin to realise at this point that it is not so much a relationship in which these figures engage with their characters, but a conflict.
As the histories progress out of childhood, we see how both Alice and Peter have sought to redress their sense of imprisonment; however, as they fight against it, each is only further locked into cycles of dependency and insecurity. Alice believes that she will find emancipation through marriage, but ultimately fails to step out of the male control that dominated her childhood; while Peter attempts to forget his youth through alcohol, but is only further reminded of his alter-ego (Pan) as he slips into dissociative mental states. The plays ends with an admission of defeat on the part of Alice, who, in her loneliness, would rather remember the fictional pleasures of her youth than fight for truth.
Logan’s Charles Dodgson declares early in the play that, ‘it is a simple thing to get lost’. This statement might adequately reflect the play as a whole. Peter and Alice opens with aphoristic dialogue that would perhaps seem more appropriate to a play about Sartre and Camus; these existential quirks are amusing but often betray the authorial voice, which seems at pains to remind us that the playwright has been thinking long and hard about these issues. This would not be a problem if there was some degree of consistency to the conclusions; however, Logan instead offers very little centre to his work. For ninety minutes the characters circle around these philosophical ideas of selfhood without ever really penetrating to the core; though one would always rather such musings form an implicit layer to the work, in a play that foregrounds words over actions there is a need to say what you are thinking.
By contrast, the set design works brilliantly on a subconscious level to project Logan’s enquiry. The bulk of the play is located in a Victorian/Edwardian children’s theatre; flat backdrops and painted scenery remind us of the artificiality of the drama, as well as foregrounding the inevitable teleology that these characters, like all stage creations, must tread. This onstage theatre is framed by Alice and Peter’s actual existence in the real world, which finds them in a dirty room backstage before a talk that they are about to give jointly. Christopher Oram must be credited for his attention to detail and the ability to elicit so much function from his designs; transitions are seamless and unobtrusive, the latter feature uniting both director and designer.
A word should be said about the quality of performance: with such recognisable figures amongst the cast, Peter and Alice is sure to draw large crowds; however, the actors more than justify such a response. Dench is masterful in her ability to turn at once from jaded old lady to innocent young child, while Whishaw enacts the mental collapse of his character with such subtlety that it is difficult to precisely locate the moment of transformation. Likewise, Nicholas Farrell and Derek Riddell, who play Charles Dodgson and James Barrie respectively, consummately embody the received depictions of their authors.
Peter and Alice contains much that will enthrall its audience. Dialogue that is entertaining in the theatre has a way of resurfacing after you have left, making the experience outlast its ninety minutes onstage. Though the script is perhaps too loose to make this play feel accomplished, there is nevertheless much to be lauded. The ideas break from the form and take on existence outside of the play itself, an achievement that Logan’s protagonists so dearly desire for themselves.
W. J. Humphries