The Noël Coward Theatre…
Open since 1903, first as the New Theatre, then as the Albery; operating under its current name since 2006. Noël Coward actually made his West End debut here, as Bobbie Dermott in his own play I’ll leave It to You, in 1920. In 1941 it sheltered the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells when their own theatres were bomb damaged. So many star-studded productions found their way here… And now it is staging Peter and Alice, John Logan’s new play, directed by Michael Grandage, starring Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw.
When Alice Liddell Hargreaves was a little girl, she went on a boat rowing trip on the river, with her sisters and their family friend, Lewis Carroll. To be precise, he was Carroll while wearing his writer’s hat, for this imaginative man was also a mathematician. When he put on his geometry hat he used his real name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. We will call him Carroll.
During that boat trip, Alice and her sisters asked him to entertain them with a story… Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was born… It was 1865.
J. M. Barrie was a novelist and playwright from Scotland who had moved to London to pursue his career. He lived nearby Kensington Gardens and often walked his dog in the park. One day he met three of the five Llewelyn Davies brothers who were out in the park with their nanny; Peter was a baby then. Barrie became a very close friend of the family (uncomfortably close by some accounts). He also became the boys’ guardian when their parents died. His friendship with the boys inspired him to create a character about a ‘Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’ and named him after Peter. Peter Pan was born in 1904, as a stage play.
Since then, both Peter and Alice surpassed their creators’ expectations and went on to become the ever so popular and familiar characters we know today, through countless reprints, translations, films, stage productions and songs. They live on to capture the imagination of children and adults who still [wish to] remember they once could fly. Can you think of anything more liberating than plunging back into that universe and be free to live in that world of dreams with no boundaries? After all, as Barrie once wrote: ‘nothing that happens after we are 12 matters very much’.
Alice Liddell Hargreaves and Peter Llewellyn Davies met in 1932, in a bookstore in the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition. She was 80… He was 35. They talked; they argued; they could not escape the fantasy world they had once inspired. John Logan’s imagination took over from there and went on to create a play around Alice and Peter, the real-life persons – not the characters and their response to growing up, fame, war, loss. Two polar opposites, two completely different responses to fantasy colliding with the harsh realities of life. She embraced this eerie world and died peacefully. He fought against it, succumbed to alcoholism and ended his life two years later.
Judi Dench, one of Britain’s finest actresses, gave a flawless performance worthy of her longstanding, loving relationship with the stage. She was witty, playful, angry and frustrated but she had an escape: her wonderland. She became Alice and did so despite her failing eye sight and memory. She was – is – an inspiration; I would have gone to see her even if she’d read pages from the phone book.
Ben Whishaw, a young, extremely talented man, one of Britain’s best actors of his generation. His portrayal of a perfumer whose craft becomes deadly in his pursue of perfection, in the 2006 film Perfume : The Story of a Murderer, was sensational. I knew there and then that he was someone to watch for… Here he was Peter. A resigned pragmatist – in reality a cynic, haunted by fame, his wings long lost…
Their interaction on stage was impeccable and at times heart breaking, she getting increasingly opened up about living in a fantasy world – her way of escaping life’s misfortunes, he getting older and weary, increasingly disappointed and scared of this world of mysterious creatures…
Supported by a worthy cast: young Alice, played by the Londoner Ruby Bentall, in full blue-dress-and-blond-wig costume; young Peter Pan played by Olly Alexander, flying (it took some effort, I understand, but he managed it very convincingly), playing the pipes and being the teaser.
Nicholas Farrell and
Derek Riddell gave solid performances as
Carroll and Barrie, respectively. Stefano Braschi was Arthur Davies (Peter’s father), Michael Davies (Peter’s brother) and Reggie Hargreaves (Alice’s husband). These were, of course, all fictional characters… the voices in the back of our heroes’ heads, melding with reality.
The stage became overcrowded at times but then again, whose head is not overcrowded by soft-little-loud voices, every so often these days?
Peter and Alice
Michael Grandage Company
Noël Coward Theatre
85-88 St Martins Lane, London, WC2N 4AU
Until 1st June 2013