By John Logan
Directed by Michael Grandage
Venue: Noel Coward Theatre
Date: Saturday 27th April 2013
We both enjoyed this but felt that the second half began to drag, with too much repetition of the same ideas in between the new snippets of biography. This caused the energy to flag, and despite the standing ovation the cast received at the end, which was not entirely undeserved, we reckon the play itself needs more work to tighten it up. Unfortunately, with two such stars in the lead roles the audiences are likely to be less discriminating, so rewrites are probably not on the agenda at the moment. A second production might help with this, though if it were also to depend on star casting, the play’s own merits may never become clear.
The idea was a good one; having Alice Liddell (as was) meet Peter Llewelyn Davies, one of the boys who inspired the character of Peter Pan. Their joint trip down memory lane was somewhat combative in nature as they debated the effects of their early elevation to popular fictional characters, with Alice having had a more positive experience despite the suffering in her life, and Peter’s depression and eventual suicide seeming to come as much if not more from his experiences in World War I than from his Peter Pan-ing days. Mind you, Barrie was shown as such an obsessive and demanding father figure – he took on the family after their real father died – that Peter’s life might well have ended unhappily in any case, but the shock of killing a German soldier came across as more than just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The set started as the interior of a very grubby old-fashioned bookshop. There were grimy skylights above two stretches of partly filled shelves, with a door centrally placed between them. Both Peter and Alice entered through a door on the right, and there were single chairs on either side of the stage. This set was quite shallow; the shelves were only a few metres from the front of the stage.
Adult Peter had gone into publishing, and the occasion for this meeting was a centenary celebration, of Lewis Carroll’s birth I assume. Alice Hargreaves, as she had become, turned up to talk to some people at the bookshop, and the play took place in the short time before they went into another room to address whoever had gathered there. After several minutes of a somewhat brittle conversation, with Alice providing some very funny lines, she became caught up in her memories of a golden summer’s day. The bookshop area lifted up, and there was a delightful set behind it. Laid out as a stage set, it had decorations showing the Mad Hatter and other characters from the Alice In Wonderland book, and the backdrop was changed several times to reflect whichever of the two stories was being emphasised at the time.
Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, joined in at this point, and we not only saw J M Barrie later as well, we also met the characters Alice and Peter Pan. Alice came up through a trapdoor which had a door painted on its underside, while Peter naturally flew in from the wings to the rear of the stage. There was one other actor involved who played a number of characters including Alice’s husband (as a young man), Peter’s father and his brother Michael. All of these parts were well done by the whole cast, and although I felt that Carroll and Barrie were often left hanging around the stage like spare parts, they did have some opportunities to show the less comfortable aspects of their relationships with the young folk who inspired them.
The play ended with the bookshop being lowered into place again, and each of the adults leaving to go to the talk. Alice left first, pausing to look back at the book Alice, who announced that adult Alice died peacefully in her sleep a few years later. As Peter left, he looked back at Peter Pan, and we were informed that Peter died a few years after Alice by throwing himself in front of an underground train. With the two adult characters gone, only the fictional versions were left, reminding us of a question raised earlier: if the book characters will be remembered long after the real ones are dead, which ones are ‘real’? The lights then went out, bringing it all to a satisfactory end.
There were a number of interesting ideas brought up by this play: the relationships between the damaged but creative adult writers and the young girls or boys whose company they craved, what it’s like to be recognised all your life as a childhood character, and the whole process of ‘growing up’ and what that means. All of this was woven together with the bare bones of their biographies, some of which was familiar and some new to us. While I liked the ideas introduced by the play, I felt they were often left hanging, not just unresolved but largely unexplored, with only a few funny lines to remember them by. The involvement of the fictional characters worked well on the whole, although sometimes the action became a bit jumbled, and I found myself checking my watch far too often in the later stages. The performances were good, naturally, but with such thin material it was hard to rate this any higher.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me