Inspired writer, John Logan. His 2009 play, Red, delved brilliantly into the gloom-ridden, suicidal mind of the misanthropic modernist painter Mark Rothko. The play’s unflinching and sordid honesty earned the author, and his director Michael Grandage, a bagful of gongs on either side of the Atlantic.
The pair have reunited for Logan’s new play, Peter and Alice, which opens with a meeting between Alice Liddell (of Wonderland fame) and Peter Llewellyn Davies, who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Alice and Peter, now grown up, compare notes about the books they featured in, about the writers who used them as models, about childhood, about adulthood, about this, about that. The writers themselves wander on stage and add to the floaty mood of inconsequential nostaglia.
When Logan studied Rothko he had a blisteringly intense focus. Here he grapples with two writers, two real children, two fictional counterparts, and two children grown into maturity. And he’s overcome by reverential awe for his material. The chief conversations are as mannered and superficial as a greetings card. And the scenes featuring J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll feel like a tribute act performed by wind-up zombies. Logan’s problem is that there’s nothing at stake for any of the characters and no one has any dramatic goal to fulfil.
The first half has one identifiable gag. Alice (Judi Dench) remembers seeing the diminutive J.M. Barrie at a party. ‘Famous people should not be so tiny, it seems dishonest,’ she says, giving the line a good crack of Lady Bracknell’s whip. But the rest of the play is crammed with bombastic platitudes. ‘For we are a family defined by our sadness,’ says the grown-up Peter, as if drafting an inscription for his grandmother’s mausoleum. ‘Do you know what it is to be 80 years old and sick and alone?’ replies Alice. ‘Do you know that truth, Mr Davies?’ Crikey! Get these bores off stage, pronto!
Because the script lacks any true conflict or passion it can’t resist a trip to that inexhaustible storehouse of easy emotion and grieving-by-numbers: the Great War. Alice, as an adult, recalls her sons’ deaths on the western front. This gives Dame Judi a chance to have a good old blub. The sight of an actor giving it the full Niagara is invariably tedious to watch although reviewers are usually polite enough to call it ‘profoundly moving’ or something like that. Here’s the difficulty. Yielding to tears is an abject and finished action that disengages our interest. The attempt to defy grief, on the other hand, and to overcome tears, is a heroic and unfinished act that sustains our interest. When actors sob, drama dies.
The show is well designed by Christopher Oram, whose puppet-theatre creation reveals layer upon layer of beautifully painted intricacy. Dame Judi is good as Alice, or good enough to bring her fans to their feet at the curtain call, which she duly does. Less convincing is Ben Whishaw as the grown-up Peter. The character is a shell-shocked, hard-drinking misfit who loathed J.M. Barrie and killed himself by plunging under a Tube train at Sloane Square station. Whishaw, an exceedingly tame and correct presence, plays him as a nice young classics don rather than as a chaotic, booze-soaked self-terminator.
Three Birds is the winner of the 2011 Bruntwood Prize and after a short run in Manchester it comes to the capital for a lap of honour at the Bush. Janice Okoh chooses a popular dramatic theme, abandoned kids forced to behave like adults. Polly Stenham has been here more than once. So has Enid Blyton whose Famous Five books inhabit a mythical adult-less world of freedom and adventure. Okoh’s twist is to put the kids in an urban council flat and to menace them with a debt collector named Dr Feelgood (excellent work from Lee Oakes), who turns out to be more a redeemer than an enemy.
Never mind that the actors are too old to play their ages; this is a hugely entertaining show played at a ripping pace. The febrile, trashy dialogue works extremely well and the undercurrents of affection and love between all the characters are wholly convincing. The plot has a few wrinkles that an astute script editor might have removed. Quite what’s happened to the children’s mum doesn’t become clear until it’s too late for Okoh to deal with it other than in a daft and disproportionate fashion. The shocking and hysterical closing moments are rather overdone. Susan Wokoma gives a pretty good account of a mouthy, golden-hearted nine-year-old, and Michaela Coel’s Tiana is classy, and faintly sleazy as a teenage beautician.