Reviewed: Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward Theatre

Child’s play.

Peter and Alice can’t escape their shadows. Wherever they go, these insubstantial versions of them hover just behind, never changing. It’s enough to drive anybody mad, this constant flickering presence in the corner of the eye. The worst part? Their shadows are arguably more real and certainly more famous than they are.

Peter, you see, is Peter Llewelyn Davies, and Alice is Alice Liddell Hargreaves, but we know them better as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, or their creators’ inspiration for those characters. Portrayed on stage in John Logan’s new play by Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench, they are two tortured individuals struggling with unlooked-for, inherited fame and overpowering nostalgia. They meet in 1932, when Alice is 80 and Peter 35, behind the scenes at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition. The mutual reminiscence that follows is played out for the audience partly through the intense exchanges between the two protagonists, and partly in a pantomime-style staging that actually does involve a Peter Pan in green tights flying across the stage and an Alice who pops up through a trapdoor, all pinny and insatiable curiosity.

At its heart, this play is a meditation on fame and immortality. Peter and Alice are united by the experience of having their childhood imaginings shared with the world by J M Barrie and Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll). Dench is quietly captivating as she evokes golden afternoons by the river in Oxford, bees buzzing, when Dodgson first made her his heroine. Whishaw’s character, more overtly jaded and damaged by life since Neverland, nevertheless at times recalls his youth when Barrie made him fly with something approaching ecstasy. But, as befits such Arcadian stories, death very quickly enters stage right – Peter’s father, mother and brothers are all killed by illness, war and melancholy, as are Alice’s sons and husband.

Logan’s script is strongest when it forces you to question the authors’ motives. Both Dench and Whishaw manage to imply, with the lightest possible gestures, that their respective relationships with Dodgson and Barrie were less than idyllic, perhaps even sinister. But such is the charm of Michael Grandage’s production that you find yourself able to forgive them almost anything – when the two authors, replete with Victorian frock coats and cravats, waltz together in the childhood paradise they created, it is impossible not to let out a giggle. By the end, one is left feeling that neither Peter nor Alice, the products of arguably the most famously perfect childhoods known, has been able to grow up. As Peter says, voice laced with bitterness: “Who would be immortal?” Alice, voicing every adult’s unspoken preference for her childhood self, replies: “What child thinks he isn’t?”

At the Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2, until 1 June

Judi Dench as Alice and Ben Whishaw as Peter. Photograph: Johan Persson

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times