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