One or two of you (*cough* Samara *cough*) have been asking when I’ll get around to writing about seeing Judi Dench in Peter and Alice and, truth be told, it’s been on my conscience for a bit. Considering I spent my undergraduate years writing theatre reviews for the student newspaper, and being drama editor for a couple of terms, this should really be right up my street, shouldn’t it? But I find student theatre rather easier to analyse and critique than theatre of this calibre – so this won’t be a review per se, but more a blog about an experience.
My friend Andrea and I have similar tastes in film and theatre, and have seen quite a few plays together (before the days of easy online booking, in our undergraduate days, we used to squabble over who would have phone the theatre company) and now we have a two-person film club where we watch plenty of older films – remind me to write about the fantastically funny 1944 film On Approval. Indeed, the only real fault Andrea has is that she (wrongly) believes that Maggie Smith is superior to Judi Dench. What nonsense. Dame J is obviously the best.
Well, to persuade Andrea to see the error of her ways (ahem) we went off to see Peter and Alice. A colleague at the Bodleian told me about it, and I couldn’t believe quite how perfect it sounded. Not only was Judi Dench in it (did I mention?) but it combined one of my favourite books (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) with one I very much like (Peter Pan). Even better, the playwright – John Logan – didn’t pick these names out of nowhere. Did you know that the woman who inspired Alice once met the man who inspired Peter? ‘Tis true – it happened at a bookshop, as they were preparing to speak at an event.
And this is where the stage is set as the play begins – with a fantastic bookshop set, high shelves, ladders, and all. It’ll come as no surprise to you to know that I loved that. Note to all set designers everywhere: nothing is more captivating than books on stage. Correction: nothing except Judi Dench – for she soon enters, to meet the ambling, nervous Peter Davies (played by Ben Whishaw, of Q fame). Alice Hargreaves (nee Liddell) is quite the opposite – confident, rather brusque, and with that wonderful spirit with which Judi Dench so often infuses her characters.
(Can we take a moment, folks, to acknowledge how provoking it is to me that JUDI DENCH was on stage playing MRS HARGREAVES. Do you know how close that it is – in my head, at least – to an adaptation of Miss Hargreaves, my favourite novel? Oh, Lady Theatre, how you tease me so.)
At first, Alice doesn’t know who Peter is – he does, after all, introduce himself as a publisher, asking about the possibility of her memoirs – and it is not until she says something along the lines of “You have no idea what it’s like” that Peter reveals that he does, in fact, know exactly what it is like.
From there, Peter and Alice goes a bit mad – in the best possible way; in a way that is perfectly in keeping with Wonderland and Neverland. The bookshop set is pulled up to the ceiling, and behind is a land with Tenniel and picaresque illustrations intermingled. J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, Alice, and Peter (the fictional characters in these last two cases) all join the stage, and the dialogue whips back and forth among them all. Childhood memories mix with retrospective reservations, which interweave with the excited shouts of the childish characters, or the justifications of the authors. It should be confusing, but the excellent writing and acting mean that it is not. So many tones come together – there are moments of nostalgia, and seeing Judi Dench take on the gait and manner of a young girl is quite breathtaking to see; there are moments of recrimination; of guilt; of confusion; of regret.
For all its joys and surrealism, there is certainly a strong feeling of sadness to the play. I was worried that Logan would wander off into the (largely unsubstantiated) accusations of paedophilia towards Barrie and Carroll, but instead he focuses on the undeniable after-effects of being forever associated with fictional character – especially, as in Peter Davies’s case, when the character was closer to his brother Michael anyway. I cried.
Perhaps nothing new is revealed about these people in Logan’s play – how could it, when it takes place chiefly in impossible lands, in an impossible amalgam of thoughts and memories? But it does bring together everything one has ever suspected about the lives of Alice and Peter, and a great deal that one would only know from biographies. The midpath between nostalgic indulgence and Nihilistic noir has been expertly judged – and perfectly acted by a brilliant cast, led, of course, by Dench and Whishaw.
I have only been to two plays which received standing ovations, I believe. One was the final performance of All My Sons, with David Suchet leading the cast, and which is the best thing I have ever seen on stage. The second, as you will have guessed, is Peter and Alice. Some of the reviews have been mixed, but I can’t tell why.
I have only just gone to investigate dates, and seen that it closed shortly after I saw it. I had hoped to send you all off to see it. If it is ever revived, particularly if the cast is the same (does that ever happen?) make sure you are first in line.