Noël Coward Theatre, 4th May 2013
I went to Peter and Alice with mixed expectations. On the one hand I couldn’t wait to see Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench, who’d recently both appeared in Skyfall. On the other, I’d read almost unanimously damning reviews. It turns out, the critics were wrong.
The eponymous characters are the real-life inspirations for Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. They meet in 1932, when Alice is 80 and Peter 35. Although the meeting did actually take place, the details of the encounter are imagined.
When Judi Dench entered the stage, I couldn’t tell how much she was actually acting; frail and pushing down on her cane with all her weight, she looked unsteady, as though she might fall at any moment. Ben Whishaw had also aged beyond his years, appearing to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Their reminiscing, raking over old memories is acted out on stage behind them. An elfin Peter Pan appears, flying, turning somersaults in the air, a young, blonde-haired Alice pops out of a trapdoor.
Their grown-up writer friends, J.M.Barrie and Lewis Carroll, also put in an appearance. Peter’s ‘Uncle Jim’ is menacing; when Peter’s father dies, leaving his mother and five brothers, the money from Peter Pan saves them from penury. This is held over Peter and his brothers, a black cloud of guilt and threats. The danger is clear when Alice asks Peter “Were you interfered with?”
Lewis Carroll (real name Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) is no more likeable. The script implies he had a paedophilic longing for Alice, culminating in a scene in a photographic dark room, where she wants to escape, but the Reverend tells her that she must stay, so as not to ruin the photograph.
In both cases, the authors want to keep the children as children for eternity. As adults, both Peter and Alice must come to terms with this; they have struggled with creating their own identities, with separating themselves from their fictional counterparts. Simply by growing up, or in Alice’s case, growing old, they have failed the authors they so idolised.
The set design by Christopher Oram is brilliant; a dusty book shop at the start lifts to reveal a combined Wonderland and Neverland. The floor is a giant chessboard, a nod to both Alice in Wonderland and the games that Peter played with Barrie. A forest sprawls for Wonderland, transforming into the clouds of Neverland.
Like a film, there’s a soundtrack to the play, but it’s in no way intrusive. At the most poignant moments, the melodies tug the heartstrings all the more. At several points I realised that tears were rolling silently down my cheeks.
The dialogue has been described as “leaden”, “like a census questionnaire” and “like seeing something grand through fog”. Despite its slower moments, I thought the play’s script was beautiful. So much so that I’m considering buying a copy, something that I’ve never been moved to do before.
Lines rung true for every adult in the audience, the emotions of sorrow, joy, love, loss, growing old, growing up, were universal. “Your heart breaks, mends, and is broken again” is one that stuck with me.
There was a melancholy imbued in the character of Peter throughout. I felt my heart break a little when he told Alice “I think I know what childhood’s for. It’s to give us a bank of happy memories against future suffering. So when sadness comes, at least you can remember what it was to be happy.”
The saddest moment of all, though, was the conclusion. Alice dies peacefully in her sleep, a few years after the encounter. Peter, though, cannot cope with his life as an adult. He cannot cope with not being Peter Pan, not being a child forever, and becomes an alcoholic. In the ultimate defiance against his fictional eternal childhood, Peter killed himself by jumping under a train at Sloane Square.
I cried, I laughed, I didn’t want it to end.
Get there early, and queue for tickets. It’s worth the wait.