The results are strangely static, Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw stand at opposite sides of the stage and relate their characters’ stories and because they’re Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, theatrical alchemists both, this is often magical and moving, but rather dramatically flat all the same.
Logan slowly starts to give shape to the pattern of their flashbacks by introducing the characters of Carroll and Barrie – the Reverend Dodgson and Uncle Jim (played by Nicholas Farrell and Derek Riddell as two similarly suited and reticent men)– and poking around in the psyche of these two complex individuals, men who seemed altogether easier and happier immersed in the world of children than of adults and who did their best to fix the objects of their particular affections and obsessions in a state of eternal childhood. Alice asks bluntly if Peter was molested, and he replies that he was not, at least not physically, but it’s clear that he regarded what Barrie did to him, what he took from him, as a kind of abuse. The play shows that both characters were, to a degree, composites – there were three Liddell sisters and five Llewellyn Davies boys, and Peter was by all accounts far more timid and nervy than his dashing and adventurous brother, Michael – but they were the namesakes and so they carried the weight of that connection.
On top of this Logan places a third layer in the form of the archetypal stage/page Peter Pan and Alice, played by Olly Alexander and Ruby Bentall, both eye-wide and arm-wide in their performances, him in a ragged green tunic with a cloud of disobedient hair, her in a broad, blue dress with long blonde tresses, a walking John Tenniel illustration. These two hover in the background, like lost shadows, and occasionally pass comment – there are sweet moments when they glance tenderly at their other selves, or smilingly reveal little hidden things, like the flask of gin in Peter’s pocket – but the relationship between the three dramaturgical layers is always fuzzy. The effect is a little like picking up a copy of a newspaper where the print colours haven’t quite synced.
Occasionally the play threatens to do something a bit more intricate, as in the scene where Dench’s Alice recalls a conversation with Dodgson in the dark room of his photographic studio, him struggling to put into words exactly what she means to him while clutching her fragile, frozen image in his hands. Later Logan seeds Michael’s probable suicide – sliding under the water of Sandford Pool with his close friend clasped to him – in a scene that shows the growing prickliness of Barrie towards the young man. But these moments are brief and over quickly.
The lead performances give the piece its weight. Judi Dench is magnificent, shucking off her initially haughty and brittle exterior like a fur stole, loosening her spine and her smile as she recalls herself as a child, giggling, gambolling – she did something similar in Peter Hall’s otherwise stiff and stately Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre and it’s similarly enchanting here. Beneath his tweeds, Whishaw is a black bundle of anguish, a man on all too close terms with death. Llewellyn Davies had a rough life: along with his brother’s death, he lost both his parents early to cancer – his mother’s death swift, his father’s horribly drawn out, disfiguring and pain-wracked – while another brother perished in the war. Whishaw’s Peter is at first gentle in his melancholy, soft-spoken and emotionally contained. But when he cracks and recalls his own time in the mud of the trenches, and the psychological toll of all that death and loss, it’s awful and it’s raw and it’s amazing, all at the same time.
Grandage’s production is also beautiful to look at. Christopher Oram’s set is, initially, typical of his designs at the Donmar Warehouse, all dark tones and diffused light, the sun seeping down into a book-lined room through smeared and murky glass. But as Peter and Alice go back into their respective pasts, this is replaced by a toybox of a theatre, filled with a succession of vibrant painted flats in Crayola colours that part and lift as the characters push further back into their memories; the stage becomes a Never-Wonderland of poster paint palm trees and storybook lagoons, with the face of the Cheshire cat looming above like a twisted moon. Visually fitting as this all is, it also highlights the play’s theatrical lack, its filmic bittiness, the way it strives to be elegiac and haunting – and in its best moments succeeds – but also feels like it may have been a more potent experience on screen than on stage.
Reviewed for Exeunt