Play by John Logan
Michael Grandage Company at the Noel Coward Theatre,
St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4AU
To June 1, 2013
Two great stars, the legendary Judi Dench and the legend-to-be Ben Whishaw, are reason enough to see this undernourished piece about a meeting between the real life models for two much loved characters from children’s literature. A gentle rumination on unwanted childhood celebrity and the tribulations of letting go of one’s youth, at only 82 minutes it is somewhat of an amuse bouche.
Logan, a great talent, is on a high; a Tony for Red, his excellent play about Rothko, and three Oscar nominations under his belt, he’s about to open a new play on Broadway with Bette Midler playing the super agent Sue Mengers. He also found time to write Skyfall, the latest Bond smash, and this re-unites two of its stars.
Taking place in the decaying store room of a book shop, the play imagines the conversation between the then 80 year old Alice Liddell-Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and the 35 year old Peter Llewelyn-Davies, the inspiration for J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, on the one occasion in 1932 when they met, at the opening of an exhibition to Mark Carroll’s centenary.
From this, Logan widens the frame and in Christopher Oram’s splendid design the shop falls away to reveal a Pollock’s style toy theater with proscenium arch and brightly painted backdrops, where the real and the imagined characters can co-exist. We meet the real Carroll (Rev. Dodgson), played by an underused Nicholas Farrell, as well as Alice’s young husband, and J M Barrie himself as well as Peter’s father and brother. Director Michael Grandage deftly orchestrates all this but without time to develop this cast of characters the focus is dissipated. Certainly with these two leads one wonders whether the piece would have been more effective simply as a two-hander.
Dench brings a wonderful steeliness to the old woman and also an aching poignancy to the inquisitive and precocious 10-year-old Alice, whom she impersonates, recounting how Dodgson first told her the story of Alice, one scorching summer day. Whishaw too is perfectly cast as the troubled soul who survived the trenches but couldn’t escape his own personal ghost. One of the few moments when the play really catches fire is when Peter Pan accuses Davies of being a drunk and an adulterer and Alice accuses Liddell of over indulging in laudanum and we see the nasty downside of heartless youth.
Logan doesn’t go as far as totally ascribing the troubles they both encountered later in life to their childhood predicaments, and this is admirable, but it leaves the peace falling short as drama. Both children were unwittingly caught up on the creation of these icons of children’s literature but that in itself isnít dramatic. Audiences desire to enrich their experience of their beloved characters by latching onto the two sources of their inspiration, while the play says more about a biography obsessed age than anything meaningful about works themselves.
He also steers clear of any suggestions of impropriety in the relationships that both men had with these children. Dodgson was an introverted dreamer who only really connected with children and had an unsettling fear of grown up women. Barrie became the guardian of Peter and his four brothers after both their parents died tragically of cancer. His platonic love for Peter’s brother, Michael, and indeed his obsession with all the boys, is explored with some delicacy. It was a different time.
For those who hold these two books dear, the piece will be a comforting wallow.