Noel Coward Theatre
Tue 7 May
until 1 June
Two shows in, the inaugural season of the Michael Grandage Company is already set to be a roaring success. John Logan’s new play starring Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw has been much-publicised, and the fact that the run has been a sell-out is no doubt due in no small part to these two high profile leads. But the hidden star is surely Christopher Oram – the design of the opening scene is exquisite, seemingly simple when you first glance at it, but delightful as the eye peruses it. Not having the curtain down before the start of the play is a lovely way to show off Oram’s work: the dusty old bookshop holds lots of detail on its many shelves, contrasting its shades of drabness against the colourful lives that soon arrive into it.
This beautifully-crafted yet ordinary setting soon gives way to a world of fantasy and memory, as the stage opens up and layers of time and imagination build up and shift. This play is hard to pin down as we flit from reality to fantasy, from present to past. The script leads us in this oscillating journey: at first, it is light and brisk, albeit with an edge. Dench’s one-liners could really only have been written for her, with their steely humour and hint of a twinkle even in their brusqueness. Whishaw is allotted more of the meandering prose and, although it is sometimes tricky to follow even in Whishaw’s fantastic performance, as the characters develop it makes sense: Peter Llewelyn Davies (Whishaw) lacks the acceptance and stoicism which Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Judi Dench) has built up, even through her troubled times.
As the final cheers of the curtain call died away, an audience member to my right mused that “there was a really good play in there somewhere – but I couldn’t tell you what it was”. Although this seems a little negative, I could see his point: this is a tricky play to get a hold of, as expectations and preconceptions are constantly derailed as the production takes us in suprising directions, often in winding dialogue. For this reason it isn’t the most satisfying play you can see in the West End, perhaps simply because the script is a little wordy and there are too many elements trying to co-exist in it. Yet it is still an enjoyable evening of theatre, and this struggle to grasp at the elusive heart of the play makes for an intriguing puzzle. There can be no doubting the quality of work of the two leads: Whishaw and Dench more than prove their acting prowess – not that Dench has anything to prove with such a glittering career – with two magnificent performances. They are simultaneously moving, amusing, touching and enthralling, and absolutely live the parts: although we cannot help but reflect on their other famous roles, there is no hint here of M or Q, of Elizabeth I or The Hour‘s Freddie Lyon. Different as they are, Whishaw and Dench ensure that these characters work as a duo who support, disarm, challenge and reassure each other in turn, creating an unexpected yet fascinating pairing.
They are supported on the whole by a strong cast: Nicholas Farrell and Derek Riddell are both a sensitive and powerful presence as Lewis Carroll and James Barrie respectively, depicting the troubled individuals whose creative minds produced these unforgettable characters. As the fictional Alice, Ruby Bentall strikes the right note of an innocent yet somehow ominous shadow of the real Alice; similarly, as Peter Pan, Olly Alexander is occasionally a little soulless and flat, but treads the line between a comfort and a burden as the two literary characters flit amongst and even interact with their real life inspirations. The allusions to Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan within the script are pleasing as we recognise them, but also newly poignant and sometimes disturbing as reality and fantasy are juxtaposed before our eyes: as Peter and Alice’s stories are entwined and confused, the apparent familiarity of the two tales is blurred.
Although the plot and script whirl between fantasy, reality and that realm in between – that of memory – there are moments of starkness here which remind the audience of the earthly struggles which still continue, even when fairytales carry us off to another world. The final moments raised an audible murmur from the audience as its brutal bluntess was startling: Whishaw’s simple act of closing the door behind him is powerful in its finality. Perhaps reality has conquered fantasy, or perhaps the fantasy of their childhoods has driven the protagonists’ reality to this precipice. Unusual and tricky to get a hold of, Peter and Alice is still an intriguing, thoughtful piece of work carried by two wonderfully memorable performances.