|The storeroom where the meeting takes place|
Last night I went to see Peter and Alice, a new play directed by Michael Grandage, about when Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Wonderland) met Peter Llewelyn Davies (Pan) at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932. Oh, and stars Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw. Yep, that was pretty much all I needed to know to be interested. In August of last year I booked tickets, hunting through an already fast selling catalogue to ensure we found a night where we could sit front and centre, three rows back. Being close enough to see the genuine tears glistening in Judy Dench's eyes during the curtain call made the wait and the expense worth it.
I've never had much interest in Peter Pan, but have always been rather obsessed with Alice in Wonderland. Not so much the many film adaptations but the books, and particularly the original drawings. (Although, in a similar manner to Winnie-the-Pooh, it is hard to divorce them from Disney's interpretations.) As well as avidly reading both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass when I was younger, I was also obsessed with one of my fathers' books by Raymond M. Smullyan, 'Alice in Puzzle-land', a book of logic puzzles based on Wonderland characters, which really brought the Lewis Carol spirit alive (I must have been a strange child!).
When we arrived in Britain we were based in Oxford, and were invited by a friend to dine at the top table of at Christ Church, where Charles Dodgsen aka Lewis Carol spent a large portion of his life. We walked down the spiral staircase from the staff room, which supposedly inspired the rabbit hole, and saw the various features of the room, such as the long necked fireplaces. But particularly I remember walking under the statue of Reverend Henry Liddell, and our friend said: "I walk under that every day and all I can think is 'That poor man, it doesn't matter what he did or didn't do in his life, he'll always be Alice in Wonderland's father'"
Which pretty much brings us to the point of the play. How do the Real Alice and Real Peter feel about being immortalised in fiction? What does it mean to go through life under the weight of such a burden? It's a complicated thing to achieve fame for doing nothing, to have everyone blur the lines between reality and fiction. As the two share their experiences, their current real life misery is contrasted with happy childhood memories, and the store room becomes a magical stage, full of Wonderland and Neverland imagery. They are joined by Lewis Carol and J. M. Barry, and by Alice and Peter Pan who represent their childhood, storybook naivety. It is a story, that in the wrong hands, could have been terrible, but playwright John Logan managed to get the slightly sinister nature of the relationships the children had with the authors, the world's intense possessive love of the stories, and the leads own battle with real life tragedy, pitch perfect.
Dench and Whishaw jumped perfectly from old and bitter to young and naive seamlessly. Brilliant actor Nicholas Farrell (above - one of those 'you'd recognise him when you see him' actors) played Lewis Carol with a wonderful stutter and a brilliant mix of kindness and creepy. And the rest of the cast were strong. The us of fictional Alice and Peter Pan was a wonderful conceit, contrasting the naive almost pantomime style acting and the authors words with real world emotions. It was a play full of humour, but I was swallowing back tears on more than one occasion.
The design, as you would expect with such a subject matter, was magical. It stayed respectful to our memories, but then took them to another level beyond imagination. Older Alice wore a 1930s style blue floral dress, and a hat with a big bow on it; older Peter wore a crumbled jacket with a green knitted waistcoat and grey trousers; wonderful allusions to the costumes of their fantasy namesakes, but subtle enough that my husband didn't even notice until I pointed it out afterwards. Fictional Alice's dress was a childhood dream, with stiff skirts and puffy sleeves and exquisitely tailored. If I have one fault, the hem of Peter's brown jacket was roughly hand hemmed, distracting enough to make me wonder if it was dodgy sewing or a deliberate attempt to make him look rumpled, but I don't pretend that this would have bothered anybody less costume obsessed.
At the beginning Peter and Alice meet in a crowded store room, complete with subtle details like a pirate ship, a mirror and a white rabbit toy mixed in with old boxes and junk. But once they began to talk properly about the past, the storeroom dissolved into a magical theatre, where lush red curtains were painted onto felt and we lived an breathed scenes of storybook fantasy. Particularly beautiful was the Neverland cavern where, through lighting and paint they somehow managed to recreate the effect of moonlight on water. It reminded me a lot of Matilda, (see my review here) in its beautiful way of combining childhood ideas for an adult audience.
I have this belief that the best theatre should embrace a sort of suspended reality, a magical place that film and television can't go, and this play perfectly illustrates that idea. But it also requires collaboration under strong directing: script, acting and design have to work together in harmony in order to create a really successful piece of theatre, and this is where Peter and Alice really excelled.