I have been looking forward to this week in March since July when I bought tickets to an unprededentedly indulgent two plays in one week: Peter and Alice and The Audience.
Now, I am not going to poise this review as some kind of Judy Dench (Alice in Peter and Alice) versus Helen Mirren (the Queen in The Audience) smackdown, although it would totally be fun to see them in a Whatever Happened To Baby Jane situation (please can someone make that happen), but I will tell you which play had an edge. Peter and Alice.
The Audience is incredibly amusing and sharply written - it is the story of the Queen's weekly Tuesday night at 6:30 pm meeting with the Prime Minister. From Churchill to Cameron, Queen Elizabeth has kept this up for 50 years. It's by Peter Morgan, who wrote the screenplay for The Queen as well as the excellent play Frost/Nixon. The progression of prime ministers is non-linear, and Mirren changes wigs and dresses almost magically to play the Queen from her early 20s to her mid 80s and ages in between. A gorgeous girl plays the young princess, skulking around the castle flirting with sports equipment. Make no mistake, it is brilliantly written and remarkably entertaining. (One of the most amazing choices is of merging Cameron into Blair into one clean shaven ball of privilege and evil). My issue with the play is this: the Queen in her conversations acts much of the time as a psychotherapist for the prime minister, asking him questions about his feelings, asking Gordon Brown about his OCD, asking John Major about his feelings of inadequacy. We all know full well that the Queen would never. And the theatrical device somehow never lets that knowledge dissipate.
But Peter and Alice. Let me tell you about that. We went to see it on Monday, me and my stalwart expat London and Edinburgh theatre companions over the last ten years. By Thursday, they had stood in line to buy up as many tickets as possible for subsequent performances so that everyone they knew could go. (That anecdote explains why I will always in the end prefer a market economy: that can happen.) This play is about when 30 year old real life model for Peter Pan meets 80 year old Alice, the real life model for Alice in Wonderland. The play begins with them discussing the preternatually close relationship they have with the authors, and their feelings about their characters now. This unfolds into the appearance of Barrie, the cleric who loved and created the Lost Boys and Liddell, the cleric who rewarded Alice's patient attention with a starring role (sole qualification - being curious). At the time of the meeting, Alice is on the ho stroll for money, selling manuscripts and making appearances to pay her heating bill. Peter is still much close to Peter Pan. Peter Pan and Alice appear, in their Disneyfied iconic perfection, Alice true to form not saying much, and Peter Pan showing off and spoiling for a fight. In the last act, war comes up, the war that killed two of Alice's three sons. Peter serves and is traumatized. His older brother kills himself.
I have lived in the UK for eleven years now and frequently commented on the way the British absolutely corner the market on children and children's literature: Peter Rabbit, The Gruffalo, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Narnia Chronicles, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harry Potter, Winnie the Pooh, Mary Poppins - childhood is a fetish here, people seem to do everything to ensure that their children's is magical, even when their own lives are not that fun. I often wondered why this was the case. Peter and Alice is the richest food for thought about childhood and fiction. To be in love with Neverland or Narnia or Mary Poppins is a powerful thing, and it can weave its own magic spell of protection on the suffering that we all face in life. And that love of these fictional worlds may be one of the great things we know - one of our great loves (the novel The Magicians and the sequel The Magician King are powerful stories of this love). But what happens? As Reverend Liddell explains to Alice, people grow up and their time is taken up with housework and business.
So when Peter and Alice face in the end death and loss and suicide, they have a prism, gleeming cleanly from the past, before the housework and business. Will this make the tragedy of their lives more or less painful?
John Logan who wrote Peter and Alice most recently wrote Skyfall. Despite this, he is a great playwright and screenwriter, and the depth of artistry he brings to Peter and Alice, the myriad of themes and insights and associations and truth, is almost overwhelming.
Make no mistake, London is magic for theatre like nowhere else I have found on earth. And theatre is like nothing else I have found for explaining life. And Peter and Alice speaks with a murky, dense, heartbreaking truth, really, the best of all.