REVIEW | When Emily met Peter and Alice
| Emily Best
This review must start with a confession. I have no recollection of reading Alice in Wonderland, nor Peter Pan, as a child. I have a very vivid memory of the Disney film of Alice in Wonderland: the tape on our video was stretched at the point where Alice’s path gets swept up by the dog, and when she starts crying the sound goes all creepy. I saw Peter Pan at the cinema – the Metro Centre in Gateshead where my uncle worked and let me see the projection room – and my mother spilt my popcorn. A boy across the aisle gave me some of his.
So when on Monday night I went to see Peter and Alice, the new play in the Michael Grandage season at the Noël Coward theatre I felt slightly fraudulent. The play, written by Tony, Oscar and BAFTA award winner John Logan depicts the meeting of Peter Llewelyn Davies and Alice Liddell (played by Ben Wishaw and Judi Dench) at a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932. As the two wait for Liddell’s grand introduction they discuss the impact of having been the inspiration for two of childhood’s most influential figures. Soon we meet the figures of Lewis Carroll and J M Barrie plus their fictional creations, and the couple reflect on being forever immortalised as children and whether it’s possible, even desirable, to grow old beyond the years of their fame.
Wishaw and Dench were, of course, beautiful. I’m not too familiar with Grandage as a director but the chemistry between them – mixtures of rivalry, hostility, insularity and empathy – was completely perfect. Wishaw combined the determined earnestness of an adolescent with the ravaged world-weariness of middle age entirely convincingly and I was amazed by Dench’s seamless transition from frail octogenarian to excited ten-year-old. Nicholas Farrell and Derek Riddell as the phantoms of Carroll and Barrie maintained a perfect distance throughout. The younger Olly Alexander and Ruby Bentall as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland were meant to be caricaturish, and while this worked perfectly once I tuned in to them, the staginess took some getting used to.
The play addressed the somewhat shady issues of the relationships between these authors and their young inspirations. Neither are unknown stories but to show them in the context of a lavish set comprising lands both Wonder and Never Never and against the innocence associated with the reading of the books was brave. It also led to the main theme of the play: loss of innocence. It was here I started to feel fraudulent. Disney and MTV generation that I am, my experience of these stories would not have lasted entire summers sitting under shady trees or in bed with a torch under the blankets, as they may have for previous generations. My experience would have lasted approximately ninety minutes, sitting in a darkened room. Could I really relate?
Yes. I have not lived through a war and many of the milestones that seem to pinpoint ‘growing up’ I’ve yet to experience. But the onrushing narrative of age, of loss of innocence, brings with it a cynicism that I think may apply to my generation more than any other. Ours is the generation, the media tells us, which grew up to fast. As children, we saw the boom years, approaching adulthood we saw the crash. By the time we got here it was all done. We were bombarded with images of overly sexualised youngsters in music videos and television, combined with shady news stories and shock-headline front pages and people’s names on lists. We had an education system focussed on its own ending. So my childhood experiences of Peter and Alice may only have lasted ninety minutes, but it feels as though that’s all we were allowed.
That is precisely what was so remarkable about this play. Whilst I may never have had the endless youth and subsequent growing-up precisely in the same was as older Peters and Alices might have, the ticking clock in the crocodile’s belly that enforces a narrative of growing-up and stomps out immortality were as loud for me as for anyone.
Every day until 1st June at 10.30am the Noël Coward Theatre a number of £10 day tickets are released for Peter and Alice. I urge you to be a bit childish while you can and pull a sickie.
**Note: Emily will be writing an extended piece on the Grandage, appearing in the May ‘Arts’ issue of the Lamp and Owl
NOTE| Emily is currently doing her MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature
Twitter - @emilymaud
[**Picture’s courtesy of: Lantern Hollow, Michael Grandage Theatre Company]