A LETTER FROM LONDON: Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw in Peter and Alice, Henry Goodman in The Winslow Boy and More

By Ruth Leon
22 Apr 2013

Judi Dench in Peter and Alice.
Photo by Johan Persson

The American friend who accompanied me, a man very familiar with Britain and the British, was completely baffled by the arcane goings-on. "What on earth is pairing?" he whispered. Central to This House, pairing is a peculiarly British device that allows MPs of different parties to cover for one another. It was discontinued during the hung parliament, thus making the normal work of government next to impossible. Not unlike the current American situation, in fact. But the parallels are not close enough, nor transparent enough, to make this play accessible to anyone not born in this damp, difficult country or anyone who was born without an interest in politics. Pity, because it's a very good play indeed.

Not perhaps quite as good a play, but blessed with the best performances in London, is Peter and Alice by John Logan, the author of Red. It could be argued that with the combination of Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, the content might as well be the London telephone directory read aloud, but it's much more than that. Again, we're looking at two real people as portrayed by two of the best actors on the English stage. The year is 1932. Mrs. Alice Hargreaves—an old, old lady in a fur tippet and sensible shoes—waits in a publishing house storeroom for the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition, at which she is guest of honour. Her host is a young man who introduces himself as Peter Davies.

The meeting is not a success. She is waspish and unwilling to tolerate sycophantic small talk. He is shy and awkward. But she is no ordinary Alice and he no ordinary Peter, for we are looking at the original Alice in Wonderland and the original Peter Pan. These iconic symbols of perpetual childhood have grown up, and this is not what either of their progenitors intended. Lewis Carroll's passion for the beautiful ten-year-old Alice Liddell and J.M. Barrie's obsession with all the brothers of Peter Llewellyn Davies were the essence of what they both wanted childhood to be, a mixture of adventure and enchantment, leavened with freedom, love and security. Neither of the writers nor their literary progeny was to achieve any of these.

While both Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland are read and studied in the United States, it is difficult to overestimate their importance in the British, specifically, the English psyche. Separated by 40 years, both works are emblematic of the exact moment when the sun always shone and the British Empire was transcendent, the years before the First World War destroyed an entire generation of young men and, with it, all hope for the future. In order for our world to make sense, we want Peter and Alice to go on exactly as they were when we first met them, unchanged by time, untouched by war or recession or greedy bankers. What we don't want is for them to grow up.