Peter and Alice, Noël Coward Theatre | reviews, news & interviews
Peter and Alice, Noël Coward Theatre
Peter and Alice, Noël Coward Theatre
Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw step through the looking glass in Michael Grandage's elegiac production of John Logan's new play
What becomes of children “born out of sadness and loneliness”, exiled from Wonderland or Neverland, longing for remembered golden afternoons, but forced to confront the chilly twilight of adulthood? This new play by John Logan brings Alice Liddell and Peter Llewelyn Davies – the real-life inspirations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and JM Barrie’s Peter Pan – face to face, not just which each other, but with their creators and their fictional selves. Like the repressed, incomplete men who created them, they hopelessly pursue happiness, along topiary-lined avenues, across mermaids’ lagoons and down bottomless rabbit holes. In fiction, Peter and Alice are ageless, and always on the verge of an adventure. In life, they are all too mortal.
Logan’s 90-minute drama – the second work in the inaugural season by the Michael Grandage Company – is poetic and achingly wistful, with echoes of nursery rhyme and cockeyed, rocking-horse rhythms. It has an eddying fluidity and perilously languid pace, yet both the writing and Grandage’s finely detailed production reward close attention. And the cast, led by Skyfall co-stars Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, conjure a potent, melancholy magic.
The real Alice and Peter met at a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932, and it is this encounter that Logan reimagines. In a book-crammed storeroom, Whishaw’s Peter prepares anxiously to greet Alice and his public. With its dirty glass skylight and the burble of voices from the gallery beyond, the room has an aquarium-like, underwater eeriness. Whishaw’s demeanour is suffused with a forlorn, defeated quality; he looks vulnerable, anguished, brittle. Dench’s octogenarian Alice, by contrast, retains a glittering glamour. In a dress whose flounces recall the child she once was, she’s imperious and yearning by turns, the woman forced by economic necessity to capitalise on her mythologised youth vying with the romantic little girl who basked in Carroll’s rapt attention while being discomfited by its intensity.
As the pair’s memories resurface and their young alter egos reassert themselves, Christopher Oram’s masterly set opens up like a marvellous toybox, disgorging layer after layer of storybook wonders. The drab storeroom flies away, revealing a giant toy theatre decorated with Tenniel-inspired illustrations. The Mad Hatter and the Red Queen perch in boxes; the Cheshire Cat grins from atop the proscenium. Here, Wonderland Alice in her blue frock and apron (Ruby Bentall, pictured above with Dench) and puckish Peter Pan (Olly Alexander) offer their wicked and unsparing, child’s-eye verdicts on the grown-ups Liddell and Llewelyn Davies have become.
Two figures in black – Nicholas Farrell’s Carroll (real name Reverend Charles Dodgson) and Derek Riddell’s Barrie – loom as large as the monstrous shadows that Paule Constable’s eloquent lighting sends stalking through the gaily painted scenes, emotionally inadequate, always demanding more of the children they idolised than they could possibly give, their affection becoming a tyranny. And nightmarish fragments of the past swim into view: Peter’s throat-cancer afflicted father, a horror worse than any pirate to his children, with his grotesque leather prosthetic jaw; the wholesale slaughter of the Great War; the death of innocence, hope and the heart’s desire. “I wanted to be an independent woman, like Jane Austen. I wanted to be a poetess. I wanted so much,” remembers Alice, who submitted instead to a life of stultifying marriage and whalebone corsets.
Logan’s writing is filled with arresting images. Llewelyn Davies, irreparably shattered by the war, describes his life pooling around his feet, as if he were a broken Humpty Dumpty – a motif echoed in the lake of tears shed by Carroll’s Alice, and in the drowning of Peter’s younger brother. But the play is more than an artful game, or a meditation on literary immortality. It is an elegy for the lost dreams of childhood, for squandered potential, a cry for love and the desperate desire to be thought of as special. It has something of the desolate feel of a deserted playroom; and yet it’s also, in its quiet, rueful way, rather beautiful.
DAME JUDI DENCH ON THEARTSDESK
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Rose Theatre (2010). Judi Dench is a glorious Gloriana in Peter Hall's flat production
Jane Eyre (2011). Dench plays kindly housekeeper to Mr Rochester in invigorating version of the novel with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska
Skyfall (2012). Dench's M (pictured) is written out of the franchise in possibly the best ever Bond movie
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012). The Dames have it in John Madden's tale of British travellers abroad
J. Edgar (2012). Dench as Hoover's mother lacks commitment to her American accent in flawed Eastwood biopic
Philomena (2013). Judi Dench touches the heart once again in the Dame's latest bid for Oscar glory
Spectre (2015). Dench's M cameos in a video message beyond the grave as Daniel Craig and Sam Mendes carry on without her
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015). The expats are back in that rare sequel that betters its predecessor
The Winter's Tale, Garrick Theatre (2015). Judi Dench brings gravitas to Kenneth Branagh's West End season opener
The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses - Richard III (2016). Dench is a matchless veteran opposite Benedict Cumberbatch chills's crook-backed king
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