JM Barrie modelled his creation on Peter Llewelyn-Davies - but ‘Peter and Alice’ reveals the terrible cost of this immortalisation

The tragic tale behind a gravestone in Hampstead Parish churchyard is revealed in a new play by Skyfall and Gladiator scriptwriter John Logan.

Peter and Alice, starring Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench, spins an imaginary conversation from the real life 1932 meeting between Peter Llewelyn-Davies and Alice Liddell Hargreaves.

He – and his four brothers – were the inspiration for JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, she the muse for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Both were subjected to the obsession of chronically shy, imaginative men, who craved the company of pre-adolescent children and created fantastical fiction that has embedded itself in the national psyche.

Logan’s play examines the pain and pleasure of growing up with your childhood immortalised in fiction and how literary stardom shaped both lives.

But the headstone to Peter’s parents Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies, their son George, who died in the First World War, and Michael, who drowned in a likely suicide pact with his best friend, hints at a darker side to Neverland.

Logan’s play portrays Peter – buried in nearby Hampstead Cemetery – as haunted by his fictional alter ego and disturbed by the emotional intensity of a friendship with a troubled adult he was too young to cope with.

Grief-stricken by family tragedy, he became an alcoholic and committed suicide aged 63 by throwing himself under a tube, shortly after compiling a “morgue” of family letters and correspondences with Barrie.

When he met JM Barrie, walking his St Bernard in Kensington Gardens, Peter was a baby in a pram accompanied by his two older brothers and their beloved nanny.

The author befriended the family and invented the character of Peter Pan to entertain George and Jack during halcyon days full of stories and pirate games.

Barrie would amuse them by saying their brother Peter could fly, that babies were birds before they were born and parents put bars on nursery windows to keep them in.

The conceit found its way into Barrie’s 1902 book The Little White Bird, about a baby boy who flew away and lived feral in Kensington Gardens. By the time the play was first staged two years later, Peter had morphed into an impish boy.

Barrie assumed guardianship of the Llewelyn-Davies boys after both parents died from cancer when Peter was barely in his teens.

Cruel and controlling

Crouch End actor Derek Riddell, who plays the writer, says the 5ft 3in Barrie never molested the boys but could be cruel and controlling.

“He was a complex character, a damaged individual because his brother died in a freak skating accident when he was six and his mother never got over it. He would dress in his brother’s clothes and pretend to be his brother to make her happy.

“He saw growing up as a hideous thing because of the tragedies that can befall you. It was better to stay in this childlike world and mix with children who didn’t find him weird. He felt as his most relaxed playing games with them.”

Barrie lauded Sylvia as the perfect mother, making her the model for Mrs Darling.

“He was completely obsessed with the boys and their mother, he took over their lives.

“He was childlike, a sentimentalist. I don’t think anyone ever got a handle on him, a strange little creature who had a sinister side to him yet was magical at telling stories to these little boys. There was a possessiveness and cruelty to him, he didn’t treat them as children but talked to them as adults.”

Every year, Barrie would write about the boys’ progress to the dead Sylvia who, as the daughter of author George du Maurier, grew up in New Grove, Hampstead, and was buried next to her father in the parish churchyard, alongside her husband and two of her sons.

As a father to four-year-old twins, Riddell appreciates the melancholy truth at the heart of Peter Pan, that weighs heavily on all parents.

“They change so quickly and grow up so fast. There’s a point where you want to photograph or record every single moment to hold onto that innocence and protect them from all the horrible things in life, but you can’t.”

Riddell, whose screen work includes Clocking Off, No Angels and the forthcoming drama Frankie, has enjoyed his first foray into theatre for eight years.

“It’s reignited my love for theatre. We’ve all got on really well in rehearsal. Judi Dench is like everything you have ever heard, no airs or graces. She’s astonishing, you forget she’s 78 and think, ‘What have I got to be nervous about when she’s got tonnes more lines than me.’ I am in awe of Ben who is extraordinary, every night, totally in the moment, totally truthful, he is able to tap into his emotions so easily. He is a visceral actor and a lovely guy.”

Peter and Alice runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until June 1.