Review: Peter and Alice by John Logan (starring Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw) – Noel Coward theatre

Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw in rehearsals. Photo Marc Brenner.

Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw in rehearsals. Photo Marc Brenner.

Are any children born with an intrinsic love for money? I don’t know why this thought popped to my head as John Logan’s Peter and Alice finished. The play has no materialistic obsessions. But it deals with the passage to the adult world, and money is an entirely adult concept.

It is 1932. Alice Liddell Hargreaves is 80. Peter Llewelyn Davies is 35. They meet for the first time. These two people have a unique bond, everyone is connected to their childhood. But they are not connected to theirs. Peter Davies is desperate to understand the missing links. Alice Hargreaves knows not to be desperate for anything.

John Logan’s play is focused on the passage to adulthood: From a place of moral, intellectual and emotional clarity we move backwards to a place of pain and confusion. What do we actually learn or know to do better?

There are many powerful elements in the play, not least the performances and unravelling the past with an explorer’s eye for adventure (the past is indeed another country). But threads need tightening for Michael Grandage’s production to achieve its full impact. Initial scenes – somewhat affected by the characters’ attempts to evade each other – seem aimless and vague. As the story unfolds, the playfulness of the staging and the imaginative use of the characters fuel the play’s more tragic themes: [SPOILERS] the scene where Peter Pan, all bravado and childish callousness, announces the death of sons and brothers in the first world war is heart stopping. Ben Whishaw recounting one of Peter’s war experiences creates a shattering image of the event and its aftermath. [END OF SPOILERS].

Ben Whishaw’s Peter is heartbreaking without being maudlin, the character’s anxiety tempered with intelligence and humour (Mr Whishaw can really land a line). His first scene with J.M. Barrie is a powerful combination of confusion, raw energy, temptation, being pulled to the past and the future, all in a single look. Judi Dench’s Alice starts from a pragmatic place, and she holds onto a kind of witty stoicism  for much of the play. When that breaks down, the pay off was worth the wait.

I was very taken with Derek Riddell’s James Barrie, a man of charisma and wide eyed drive but with a sinister energy around the edges. (As it turns out, this was nothing more than loneliness. It is rarely acknowledged that lonely people are uncomfortable to be around). Olly Alexander, with a nice likeness to Ben Whishaw and exactly the right energy, was born to play the boy who wouldn’t grow up. I was less certain about Nicholas Farrell’s Lewis Carroll: maybe it’s the primness, the air of propriety or the costume, but I couldn’t feel the pull of the character.

The set starts with a library of worn wood, faded leather-bound books (and a stuffed bunny among them). From that it moves to a neverland of children’s stories. It largely works, although it doesn’t always pop out as it should.

Very early previews have an air of fear rather than confidence and, and while this is exciting (I am weird that way), there is no doubt the production will improve.

Read revstan’s comprehensive review at her blog, and for an alternative approach to the play, go to the Vampire Soup blog.

2 responses to “Review: Peter and Alice by John Logan (starring Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw) – Noel Coward theatre

  1. Saw the play last night. Thought it had a tentative start, but warmed as it got underway. The subject matter, Are children manipulative?, do we look back on youth with rose tinted specs? In my view the answer to both is yes. Then we
    have the proposition that events in latter life can rip us apart when there’s no
    place to hide. I enjoyed the performances very much. But the subject matter requires some thinking through before hand. I’m sure there were nuances
    there which I missed.

    • Thanks for your comment, I think there is a lot of truth in what you say. If there is a fault to the play, it’s that the focus is exclusively on the internal life of the characters, so it has less hooks than most stories on stage. But the relationship of childhood and adulthood is endlessly fascinating.

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