So here it is: the return of West End theatre. But things are far from normal, with the action transported from an auditorium to a churchyard in Covent Garden, and just a handful of participants allowed in to watch. And rather than a blockbuster musical with all the bells and whistles, we have a forty-five minute one-women show, Dear Peter, written and performed by top fringe theatre talent Evangeline Dickson. But such is Dickson’s chameleonic ability, and such is the heartfelt bildungsroman that she puts it towards, that at no moment did it feel as though the action was lacking.
Dear Peter is a rumination on how our childhood self always lives on inside us, no matter how much we might outwardly change. As a child, protagonist Ash was a Peter Pan-obsessive, and has ever since confided in her “Dear Peter”, who is an imaginary friend able to offer comfort and support, as she grows and the social world she inhabits changes. The story runs the risk of being a little prosaic – about the trials and tribulations of growing up – but Ash faces enough intrigue and trauma to sustain the audience’s emotional interest.
At a time when so many people of Dickson/Ash’s age have found themselves unexpectedly living back at their parental homes, coming face to face with the habitat of their early years, this story of enduring childhood perhaps holds particular resonance at the moment. Dear Peter suggests that residue of childhood experience lives on in our consciousness, despite our attempts at emancipation. That is, until finally we really do “grow up” – and with the glaring expanse of adult life stretching out before us, all we want is to return to the innocence of what we had.
Dickson’s writing captures middle class rites of passage well – from heading into secondary school equipped with a “new Billabong rucksack” and the fraternal advice that “life begins in year 7”, to being twenty-three and feeling grown up with “a thousand plants” and a house that Dad only helps out “a bit” with the rent. And this is interlaced with the imaginative language of JM Barrie’s novel, with metaphorical discussions about flying and parallels drawn between people in Ash’s own life and pirates, mermaids and fairies. These occasionally stretch things to a point of cliche, with Ash repeatedly proclaiming at one point: “I’ve forgotten how to fly now I’m just a lost boy.” But Dickson’s earnestness with her material, seamlessly shifting between comedy and tragedy, means there is little time to fixate on such moments.
There is a real bravery to Dickson’s performance: coming out after so long locked away, performing in daylight under grey clouds that seemed ever about to burst into rainfall, and with such an intimate audience on whose faces you could see every laugh, cry or yawn. With so many actors still at home and without work, it is a privilege to see someone performing with such skill. Her lines echo around the buildings of Covent Garden, a beacon of life in a still-largely sleeping city.
Dear Peter played at St Paul’s Church Covent Garden on 14 and 15 August 2020. For more information and tickets, see the Iris Theatre website.