Peter and Alice has had a lot of hype. At a time when almost daily debate rages on the question of whether art can be ‘immoral’ – whether we can ever really separate the creative from its creator – journalists, critics and curators alike are throwing up their hands. This production is an unintentionally timely tale. A chance meeting between Alice Hargreaves and Peter Llewelyn Davies – the real-life muses who served as the models for two of the most celebrated characters in children’s literature – inspired John Logan’s script, and has ensured a full house at the Noël Coward until June.
The stark, rather superficial truth is that the cast have probably provided most of the excitement surrounding Michael Grandage’s latest offering. I’d never seen Judi Dench on stage before – something that was beginning to make me feel like a Very Bad Person, and have harboured inappropriate feelings for the awkward, gangly, bearded Ben Whishaw since The Hour. But reader, I have learned my lesson, and frankly even this most formidable theatrical pairing cannot save Peter and Alice. They are each others’ antitheses, as Dench looks back on a stellar career spanning almost 60 years, and Whishaw is busy bursting into both national and global fame. In their own right they just about hold the audience’s attention for 90 minutes, but they’d struggle to do so were this train-wreck to have dragged itself along through an interval.
It is the script that so entirely lets this otherwise conceptually brilliant production down. Whilst Christopher Oram’s set design is wonderfully well done, visually engaging and appropriately disparate, there is much unexplored potential, and the performances are only as effective as Logan’s overly rhetorical, needlingly questioning dialogue will allow:
“There were five of you?”
“Five boys, yes. Five brothers. And there were three sisters?”
“Yes, we three Liddell girls, back in Oxford.”
“But you’re ‘Alice’.”
“As you’re ‘Peter’. But, after all, what’s in a name?”
How laboured were the points, how tedious the discussion, how jarring the cobbled recollections of the characters’ lives and the portraits of the authors, how supremely irritating the childlike duo representing the younger, fictional Peter and Alice, how boorish the insertion of the Great War, a tired tear-jerker finale. We are required to make the leap of faith that a bristling, bitter 80 year-old woman and a tarnished, melancholy 35 year-old man would form a bond so instant, even considering their shared literary pasts. The exchanges are unnecessarily stylised, intricate and downright difficult to follow. Jumps between scenes are too forced, too neat. This strips all sympathy from what could otherwise be an intensely emotional encounter.
The backdrop was, initially, there: the faded, crumbling bookshop in which Peter and Alice first met, and on whose walls hung a stopped clock and a mirror that had long failed to reflect anything accurately. Onto this sad stage then burst a whole garish range of redundant additions: the brief appearances of Dodgson and J.M.Barrie, whose representations failed to address the true nature of their feelings for either child, and who thus failed themselves to rouse any pity, even when rejected.
The stage was crowded, detracting from the most important exchanges between the adults. Olly Alexander, tripping across the stage like Ariel or Puck (think less The Tempest, more Prospero’s Books), looked like he could be Whishaw’s twenty-something drinking buddy – and if this was some sort of symbolic point it was lost on me. The ‘children’ were an easy, lazy distraction, shifting focus from the main event, pushing the attention from Dench and Whishaw in a way that didn’t have any real import.
Ultimately, this is a tale of misplaced experience: the whispers of eroticism and its far-reaching effects, the consequences of an experience hard-earned, and the process of growing up too soon. Logan suggests both Alice and Peter were subjected to an adult world they didn’t understand, old before their time. But his offering simply lacks subtlety. It is self-indulgent, whiney, and fails to arrive at what it is that really motivates his characters. It is rare to experience a play that so fundamentally disappoints, when its surrounding publicity has been so great. In this case, the ‘talk’ surrounding Peter and Alice has clouded judgement on Peter and Alice. As Dench’s character so accurately states, “In a few years no one will remember Alice Hargreaves, but everyone will remember Alice in Wonderland.” Sad to say, this production too will be best forgotten.
Peter and Alice directed by Michael Grandage; Noel Coward, London; Until 1 June Box office: 0844 482 5141 More Information