BWW Reviews: PETER AND ALICE Brings the Real and Fictional Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland Together

Reviewed Thursday 19th August 2014

Independent Theatre Inc. is celebrating its thirtieth year and, to add to their excitement, the current production is also their hundredth. As if that is not enough to celebrate, it is also the Australian premiere of American playwright, John Logan's, latest play, Peter and Alice. Before he became a major writer of stage and screen plays, Independent Theatre discovered him, and they have staged a number of his plays since then. Such has their close relationship become that, after opening professionally in London, Logan gives the exclusive amateur rights to Independent Theatre before releasing them to anybody else. Not only that, but whenever he can he comes to Adelaide to see the production.

That is already a lot to celebrate, but it does not stop there as they can also celebrate a highly successful opening night to a magnificent production. Logan's writing is always superb and there is a poeticism to this work that sits so well as the text slips from current conversations, to past conversations, and short snippets from both the Alice books and the play, Peter Pan and from fact to speculation to invention. Director, Rob Croser, has perfectly captured all of the moods and intricacies in this very clever play, and has found exactly the right people for each role, creating wonderful piece of theatre..

On 26th June1932 the eighty year old Alice Liddell Hargreaves met thirty-five year old Peter Llewellyn Davies in London's Bumpus Bookshop, where she was to open an exhibition celebrating the centenary of Lewis Carroll (27th January 1832 - 14th January 1898). It was she who became Lewis Carroll's Alice, who appeared in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. JM Barrie similarly transformed Davies into the fictional character in the play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up.

John Logan mused on what might have been said at that brief meeting between the real Peter and Alice, both of whom were apparently badly affected throughout their lives through being associated with these two literary works from which they could never escape, as well as the two people that wrote them. That was the inspiration for this play, a speculative conversation based on whatever the facts suggested. One thing that is quickly apparent is that Logan has put a lot of time and effort into his research for this play.

As Peter and Alice talk, the ghosts of Barrie and Carroll appear to add their influences and, soon, it is necessary for the fictional Peter and Alice to appear and put forward their points of view. We find Carroll in his reality, the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, tall thin, sickly and stuttering, captivating the Liddell children with his stories and his status as a teacher. He takes them on boating trips on the river and tells his tales, which Alice Liddel insists he write down for her. He takes photos of Alice and numerous other young girls, often nude or half naked. Taking eleven year old Alice into his darkroom one day to see a plate being developed, he hints at marriage to him soon. The age of consent was twelve at that time. He was told to stay away from the family.

We discover Sir James Matthew Barrie, who inveigles his way into the Llewllyn Davies family and exerts a Svengali-like influence over the mother and the children, supplanting the father and breaking the minds of the children, who refer to him as "uncle" Jim, bending them to his will. On the death of both parents he assumes the role of adoptive father, apparently having forged the will which was intended to give the children to their aunt's care. He changed the name Jenny to Jimmy, but it was not discovered until long after that he had forged the will to get control of the children.

Today, the authorities having got wind of this sort of behaviour, there would have been investigations launched into both authors, and the term 'suspected paedophile' would probably have been freely used by the media. It is not surprising that both families suffered from being involved with these two men, and that the children were mentally damaged. Peter Llewellyn Davies committed suicide, as did one of his brothers, Michael, and another, George, went off to war to escape from Barrie, dying there.

Some of these well recorded facts are brought into the discussions between the six, and others not mentioned here are also brought up, along with the speculative parts of the conversation. Did these two have a childhood? Was their childhood cut short? When does a person leave childhood and become an adult? What is childhood? So many questions are raised in this thoughtful play.

Pam O'Grady and Will Cox play the real Alice and Peter, O'Grady beginning the play by presenting a character who seems cool, aloof, stiff, prim and proper, as she enters and sits to take tea, and Cox's Peter is shy, nervous, and subdued, awkward as he tries to start a conversation.

At first, it appears that the differences between them will quash any attempts to converse, but when Alice realises that Peter, like her, has been the subject of a children's fairy tale, things change. His aim is to persuade her to write her memoirs, but the conversation quickly goes in other directions, and it is fascinating to watch these two marvellous actors build and develop their characters during the play. As the only two real characters in the play, they interact with each other throughout, while the others drift in and out of the conversation. In doing this, O'Grady and Cox establish a strong rapport that grows out of their powerful characterisations.

Domenic Panuccio and David Roach tackle the complex roles of Barrie and Dodgson/Carroll, offering another pair of marvellous characterisations. As the real writers would have done, they presented themselves as friends of the children and their families, harmless writers, caring for their friends, and yet with both there are cracks in the veneers, and we get the impression of something eerie, creepy, lurking, occasionally seen in a sideways glance. These are roles that demand, and were given careful consideration and interpretation in the hands of these two great actors.

Emma Bleby and Ben Francis are the fantasy Alice and Peter Pan, Bleby presenting wonderfully that very sensible young girl who was caught up in worlds of absurdity, but maintained her common sense and logic to find her way home, and Francis prancing around, seeming to almost fly around the room and climb up the walls, is equally convincing the chaotic character of Pan. They could very easily have just stepped out of the pages of Carroll's books and Barrie's play.

Laurence Croft plays the three smaller roles of father and son, Arthur and Michael Llewelyn Davies, and Alice's husband, Reginald Hargreaves. He brings three very different characterisations to the stage and, if you had not read the programme before the play, you might not have noticed that they were all the same actor.

There is more to a production than the performance, of course, and the set, designed by Croser and Roach, is quite remarkable. Initially it appears to be the storeroom of the bookshop, and it is solid and well finished enough to be real. Suddenly, when the fantasy worlds become involved, a second part of the set is revealed, decorated with iconic images from Barrie's and Carroll's works, courtesy of scenic artist, Brian Budgen. To get the full effect of this, try to sit as close to the centre of the audience as possible, as the bookshop part of the set obscures progressively more of it the further away from centre that you sit. Be early to get the best seats as it is general admission. Matthew Marciniak's lighting is very important in creating the atmosphere and delineating between real and imaginary, as well as marking sections out of time and place, and Pattie Atherton's costumes look great.

This is a production that combines so many elements referring to everybody's favourite stories, their authors, and the people who inspired them, that you really won't want to miss it, so be quick to book your tickets.

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From This Author Barry Lenny

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