A bit late in the day to get round to seeing the second in the Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward (I’m still calling it the Albery) Theatre, but travel, Eurovision and other commitments prevented our earlier attendance. Starring Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, both of whom were in Skyfall, and written by John Logan, who wrote the aforementioned film and is apparently writing the next two James Bond screenplays, one might expect an evening of espionage and gadgetry, femmes fatales and martinis. No. This is a very thoughtful and imaginative exploration of what it must be like to be the real person on whom a celebrated fictitious person is based.
Dame Judi plays Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the 80 year old Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, as she meets Ben Whishaw’s 35 year old Peter Llewelyn Davies, the inspiration for J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, at a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932. This apparently really happened. Whilst both have had their fair share of hardships and bereavements, Alice is a relatively stable character who knows that the fictitious Alice has actually been quite useful in her life; whereas Peter is tormented by his alter ego’s continual childhood happiness against the backdrop of him and his brothers being handed over by his dying father to “Uncle Jim” and his rather unorthodox guardianship. Not so much in loco parentis, more in loco mentis tortoris.
Peter and Alice meet in a wholly unglamorous functional backroom at the exhibition. But once they start challenging each other on their relationships with their famous writers, the backroom is replaced with colourful abstract scenery reflecting the (allegedly) carefree days of childhood. The kindly or otherwise figures of Lewis Carroll and J M Barrie emerge in the memories of the two main characters and we see them interact and watch how the writers play very formative influences in their childhoods. Once they have come to life, they are followed by the fictitious Alice and Peter Pan who also comment on the relationships, and make a stark contrast with their older real life versions.
What works so well is the development from the play being about Mr Davies and Mrs Hargreaves, and their reflections on the writers and characters, to the emergence of Peter Pan and Alice, taking over the stage, criticising their real life counterparts, revealing the sad and bad aspects of their personalities – and finally having the last words on their subjects. The real people live and die; the literary creations endure forever. The play has some interesting observations about the nature of reality and fiction, family relationships, mental stability and the fine line between care and abuse by an older friend or relative. And it’s all really beautifully written.
There is a distinctly sinister undertone throughout the play regarding the attentions of the Rev Dodgson and Uncle Jim towards their younger charges; whilst nothing is ever overtly stated or portrayed, you sense at any time something dreadful might happen to the youngsters that would merit the accusation of paedophilia. Nothing does; but it hangs in the air like a veritable sword of Damocles.
Regular readers might know that I’m not a fan of the “play without an interval”; unless it is combined with another one-act play, either side of an interval. However, this is one of the cases where I can see precisely why an interval would be undesirable; there’s no obvious cliff-hanger moment halfway through that would come at an appropriate time, and the gently unsettling atmosphere that gets built up during the course of the play could get lost. At about 85 minutes it’s not so long that you desperately need the loo before it’s finished; but I do always get concerned at the revenue loss sustained by the theatre when they don’t sell drinks and ice-cream during the interval. I know, that’s not really for me to worry about.
It’s an eloquently written play and is performed with all the skill and honesty that you would expect. I reckon 85% of the full house were there just to see Dame Judi – judging by the speed and fervour of the standing ovation when she came on for her second curtain call. They won’t have been disappointed. From the moment she appears on stage, her attention to detail, her technical ability, and her complete immersion in the character are all immaculate and astounding. When she is reunited with the Rev Dodgson (a thoroughly believable, slightly Gladstonian Nicholas Farrell), she changes instantly from old woman to little girl, and it’s a delight. She was also excellent coping with her shame when fictitious Alice, a suitably attitudinal Ruby Bentall, starts delivering a few home truths.
Ben Whishaw was also compelling as the anguished Peter, with nervous mannerisms and a kicked puppy look when manipulated and subjugated by the odiously pleasant J M Barrie, played with quiet ruthlessness by Derek Riddell. It was a really thoughtful and moving performance. Also excellent was Olly Alexander as Peter Pan, encompassing all the childhood heroism of his character, expressing great excitement in contemplating his adventures, but not holding back from turning on his real life counterpart when his defences are down. The final member of the cast is Stefano Braschi who brings Peter’s tragic brother Michael to life and also does a wickedly funny silly-arse routine as Alice’s suitor Reggie. It’s a splendid production, very moving, beautifully put together and superbly well acted. You do come away from it feeling rather sad; well, we did. If it wasn’t about to close in a few days time, I’d say you should book now!
Grumpy audience update: a while ago I remarked on how often members of the audience grump at you if you need to squeeze past them to get to your seat. There was a splendid example of this at the Saturday matinee we attended. There were a few people we had to inconvenience in order to find our seats but I really didn’t appreciate it when I got told to my face “NOT AGAIN!!” by a grumpy old woman. “Can you get past if I do that”, she moaned, repositioning her leg a tiny distance from where she had previously stretched it out. “I’ll try,” I responded, a little sourly, and then made as much effort to linger and balance precariously over her lap in the process. Some people! Honestly!