Peter and Alice
By John Logan
Directed by Michael Grandage
Michael Grandage Company
Noel Coward Theatre
16 March 2013, matinee
note the seat numbers, avoid like the plague
John Logan’s return to the theatre is based on a story he first heard twenty-odd years ago, that Alice Liddell, inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, had met Peter Davies, inspiration for Peter Pan in the 1930s. According to Wiki, this took place at Columbia University where the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Underground was on display. It had been sold at auction by Alice. According to the play the meeting is in a books lined room. Reviews say it’s a London bookshop, but the text doesn’t mention that, and on reflection, they’re waiting to go through a door where Alice will give a speech, introduced by Peter, so it could be the library at Columbia. It looks too grubby for that. No matter, I interpreted it as a storeroom for old books, tellingly old books, off the library where she is to speak. They really did meet briefly and this is the springboard upon which the play is built.
When sound film appeared in 1929, the studios rushed to find wordsmiths, and soon learned that journalists and novelists generally turned in better results than playwrights. John Logan is the shining exception: he started his writing career as a playwright in Chicago, wrote plays for ten years, and then became one of the most successful screenwriters of the last twenty years: Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, The Aviator, Sweeney Todd, Coriolanus, Rango, Hugo, Skyfall.
Gladiator is as epic as epics get, Rango is one of the funniest animations, Coriolanus is one of the most violently gripping screen Shakespeares, and Hugo is one of the flat out best films, and film scripts, of the last few years. Skyfall certainly isn’t up to any of those, but it is the best James Bond film for a few decades, and he’s writing two more. Logan recalls Oliver Stone telling him back in 1999 that Al Pacino could replace an entire three pages of speech with a look in the eyes. That’s more or less the same as Monroe Stahr’s advice to the hapless writer in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, and good advice too, whether it was Stone saying it anew, or one of them consciously repeating Fitzgerald. So for Logan, another return to the theatre (he won awards for his 2010 play, Red as well, also directed by Michael Grandage) is a return to working with the power of words, though wordiness is definitely a fault of this play.
What was it like to be the inspiration of one of the two best-known figures in children’s fiction? These fantastical leaps of the imagination, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan stand alone (well, The Wizard of Oz stands pretty close). Both were written by bachelors, both were inspired by telling tales to real children who are part of the inspiration.
Lyndhurst in the New Forest, where Alice Liddell is buried, used to have at least two tea shops named after her. We have nearly a dozen editions of Lewis Carroll by various illustrators. We don’t have a J.M. Barrie on the shelf, but we do have the Disney animation. As a child, I hated people in books called ‘Peter’ because they were infringing on my identity, and I include St. Peter in that. As I’ve said in another review, being called Peter and having a sister called Wendy doesn’t help. Be warned: I thoroughly disliked Peter & The Star Catcher too. I may not be in to anything connected to Peter Pan.
Most reviews focus on the cast rather than the writer, Judi Dench plays Alice at eighty; Ben Whishaw plays Peter in his early thirties. It seemed like a dream casting with a dream writer and dream director, and no doubt did when it was commissioned. We were excited … but …
Oh, dear. It’s difficult to be totally objective. We were seated in the back row of the balcony. These are cheap seats, and basically not worth having. You only see the top of the heads, and for us 25% of the stage was invisible. Judi Dench disappeared extreme front stage left for most of the last half hour.
The play was due to start at 2.30. At which point we heard the mobile phone warnings. Then stage and auditorium stayed lit for 7 or 8 long minutes in silence. Eventually we heard a voice stage left (couldn’t see anyone) and the house lights jerkily dimmed. I think they need to work on their initial impact. And punctuality. And lighting plot.
Yes, the original concept is promising, and the interest came when they explored the effect of these two great writers on their child subjects, or perhaps victims. That was a subject we discussed afterwards. But the play is static and slow. When the bookshelves lift away, they reveal a chequered chess board stage. People got stuck in tableaux like chess pieces, immobile while one actor emoted. Judi Dench and Ben Wishawe did their thing, but, blasphemy, that was about it. Judi Dench seems content with turning in Judi Dench 101. Ben Whishaw doesn’t have any funny lines, nor anything more dramatic than sad reflection. The best bit of the entire play was his recounting killing a man in World War One. They were both fine, nothing wrong. Just no star quality projected either, but the text didn’t give them anything to project..
I thought neither Reverend Dodson (Lewis Carroll) nor J.M. Barrie more than clichés and pieces on the chess board. The other two, Peter Pan and Alice as in Alice in Wonderland were … to be kind to the actors … struggling with a weak and dull script. Plus there was the guy doing all the other bits, but he had few lines. Peter Pan had far too many.
How can such a great screenwriter turn in such a dull, static and boring piece from a good story? The direction, such as it was, is wooden. People stood square and still listening to ‘the speaker.’ It’s intrinsically a badly-flawed play, which neither directors nor actors could lift, though I think a radical direction rethink could lift it somewhat. Perhaps John Logan, with screenwriting put aside, reverts to “Standard American Dramatist” role and delivers long non-interactive emoting, with the obligatory off-Broadway minimal cast, and two star lead roles. I was amazed at how little sense of interaction there was and how poor the script was on any kind of dialogue.
The strength, such as it is, is narrating (narrating not performing) the tragedies in the lives of Peter & Alice connected to the Great War where Peter lost brothers, and had shell shock, and Alice lost her sons, then after the war, Peter’s brother Simon’s suicide. Simon was with his friend, a poet who was ”exceptional” (i.e., in the 1930s, gay). There is some talk about whether Dodson or Barrie actually molested their young muses. The play is equivocal. I think it likely that they did “fancy” their muses but in those days I suspect they would have subverted any desires with a long, long ice-cold shower. But that’s a hanging subplot, and is relevant in the year of the Jimmy Saville revelations.
The flat, 2D sets, based on the original illustrations to the books were highly praised. But not by me. There was every opportunity to go into magic and fantasy when Peter Pan and Alice stepped out of the past, but it doesn’t happen. Add adults playing children, which usually fails. No. Those scenes are as flat as the set.
After such a sparkling start with Privates on Parade, the Grandage season dives surprisingly and spectacularly downwards on Peter & Alice. It’s a pity. When I first read about the concept, my mind leapt to Richmal Crompton’s nephew, said to be dogged through life by being the inspiration for Just William, meeting Enid Blyton’s George from The Famous Five. Actually, that has more mileage in it. At least there’d be some funny sections.