All children, except one, grow up. — J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
Leaving Los Angeles for England almost shattered me. It should have been a triumphant moment. I was going to pursue my dream of studying at Oxford University, but I felt so sad leaving my family that I could not breathe. I had actively chosen to go to undergrad thirty minutes from home and visited nearly every weekend, not wanting to miss a Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s. A child of divorce, I already suffered from separation anxiety and a desire to cling to the rose-colored world of childhood. Even now, I maintain an obsession with Disney and fairytales, looking for any avenue of romantic escapism. I am unable to travel without at least one of my beloved stuffed animals. Growing up has never been my strong suit, and moving to England forced me to do so in new ways—to be alone and independent in the world, without a nearby safety blanket to rush home to. At the time, I could not recognize that this was what terrified me. I went through airport security, heaving with sobs, not comprehending why pursuing my passion was proving more painful than joyous.
Adjusting to living my dream was hard, but theater and film proved my refuge—a space and precious few hours to escape my crippling homesickness.
The lights go down in the Noel Coward Theatre—a storied space nestled in the crowded, winding streets of London’s West End—and an accompanying hush falls over the crowd as we wait for Peter and Alice to begin. I am safe, returned to the womb in this sacred darkness, and ready to worship my idols—actors, storytellers, the weavers of make-believe. As Judi Dench appears on stage a sharp intake of breath passes through the audience—the brief gasp at finding oneself in the presence of a Grande Dame of the London theatre. Yet, my eyes flicker to her only briefly—they are trained, instead, at the figure opposite her—a waifish mop of brown hair and electric talent—Ben Whishaw.
Prior to his recent turn as “Q” in the Bond franchise, Whishaw was known primarily to eccentric Anglophiles and followers of the London stage for turns as Hamlet, Richard II, and the poet John Keats. Whishaw is one of the most daring, enigmatic performers working today. He excels at playing broken characters —making you feel the rawness of their pain and breaking your heart open with a combination of fragility and ferocity. His unruly, glorious mane defies follicular possibility and channels the inner life of each soul he breathes into being as he exposes the most vulnerable parts of a man’s essence. Whishaw claws his heart out of his chest and holds it out to the audience.
In Peter and Alice, his visceral work is on display as he matches Judi Dench’s eighty years of experience with delicacy and simplicity. Watching Whishaw and Peter and Alice evokes the sensation of pressing a bruise—it hurts, while satisfying a deep-seated urge. The play, written by Skyfall scribe and Tony award–winner John Logan, uses a real historical moment as its base. Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan were both based on real children respective authors Lewis Carroll and J.M. Barrie knew—Alice Liddell and Peter Llewelyn Davies. Though the stories were written nearly fifty years apart, Davies and Liddell did meet—one afternoon in 1932 in a London bookshop before Liddell opened an Alice exhibition at the shop. Logan imagines this meeting that seems the stuff of fantasy itself—when Alice in Wonderland met Peter Pan. From this, it dives into their lives, exploring the harsh reality and loneliness of growing up, and the consequences of having one’s identity subsumed by the public. Alice Liddell and Peter Llewelyn Davies trade stories, describing how the shadows of Alice and Peter (and their creators) have haunted their lives, specters of unsought fame.
All of this is conducted in Christopher Oram’s jewel box set, which brings us beyond the dusty confines of a bookshop and into the fantasies of Wonderland and Neverland, while Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, and others flit through the action. The set is a pop-up picture book—a river in Oxford and an iridescent moon in Neverland brought to life with magical realism that echoes the space between fantasy and reality in which Peter and Alice reside. It twinkles with the delicacy of a music box, while providing the backdrop for the grim truth of their adult lives. The play maintains a mystified air, but is never sentimental—Peter Pan does not implore the audience to save Tinkerbell’s life by “clapping if they believe in fairies.” Instead, Davies notes, “the only reason boys don’t grow up is because they die.”
As Peter’s brother Michael, also immortalized in Peter Pan, commits suicide with his lover, Michael stands on the depths of a moonlit Neverland shore. J.M. Barrie recounts his death, and the facts are interspersed with quotes from Peter Pan about the haunting and melancholy sound of the mermaids “wailing at the moon.” The fiction underscores and lends poetic resonance to the truth. Throughout the play, lines of Barrie and Carroll’s text intermingle with the storytelling, allowing the escapism of these children’s classics to illuminate frightening truths about the reality of their namesakes and the painful prospect of adulthood with its inherent sense of loss.
The play lives in the space of these blurred lines between fiction and reality, as the real Peter and Alice grapple with the disappointments and tragedies that accompany growing up. They, and generations of readers, yearn to find their way back to Wonderland or Neverland, where they might be young and carefree again. The real Alice notes, “Children don’t have hearts yet, not really. They haven’t been hurt into the need for one,” while Peter Davies surmises that childhood is to “give us a bank of happy memories against future suffering.” Alice takes refuge in the childlike ability to lose oneself in story and imagination, while Peter is destroyed by the false promise it gave.
Sucked into their memories and the stories bearing their names, Peter and Alice glide between their childhoods and their present 80 and 30-year-old selves. With no makeup, vocal tics, or hokey posturing, Dench and Whishaw return to childhood onstage. They do not play at being childlike, as if in a pantomime—they just are children, wholly and utterly believable. Dench’s Alice is naive, curious, and unintentionally cruel; Whishaw’s Peter is innocent, breathless with excitement, and lost in the safety of a storyland. They recount their difficulty to comprehend the enormity of the emotions and situations they encountered or had foisted upon them by Barrie and Carroll.
Liddell surmises that the fictional Peter and Alice were born out of loneliness—a desire on the writers’ part to eternally preserve the childhood of real children outgrowing their reach. Their real life counterparts swing wildly between throwing off the burden of their alter egos and seeking refuge in the childhood they represent. The enduring appeal of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland speaks to this—we are enthralled with these texts that allow us to entertain the fantasy of never growing up, living in a fantastical land, where the greatest things we have to fear are a Red Queen or Captain Hook.
Whishaw taps into this with Peter’s final plea—his arms outstretched and eyes closed, as he whispers, “I want to hear the mermaids singing to the moon…I want to be young with my brothers…I want to be sane again and whole…I want…I want…to jump on the wind’s back and away we go…”
It is something grown-ups in the audience crave—the ability to erase tragedy and loneliness. Whishaw’s voice is ragged with loss as he tries valiantly to find his way back to Neverland but succumbs to his harrowing grief.
As an actor, he cracks himself open so completely in front of us that when he takes his bow, moments after this final scene, he is struggling to regain composure, tears streaming down his face. I hold my breath throughout these final moments and the curtain call as I feel my heart break, finding myself face-to-face with my own obsession with Neverland and my desire to return to a time when I might never grow up—to take the second star to the right and find myself safe in my imagination. Everything that Oxford has challenged me to become and forced me to leave behind is present in that moment. Like Peter and Alice, I can never go back, but only be haunted or buoyed by the comforting shadows of the trappings of my childhood.
Streaming back into daylight and reality, I cannot speak as I exit the theatre. Instead, I just clap…for Whishaw, for Dench, for Carroll and Barrie, and because I still believe in fairies.
Slider image photography Tony Hisgett