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PETER AND ALICE

Peter And Alice, Noel Coward Theatre, London, BargainTheatreland Review

“Nothing that happens after we are 12 matters very much.”

So said J. M. Barrie, creator of the boy who never grows up, but is the state of perpetual youth an exquisite dream or the realm of tragedy?

That’s the central question of the powerfully elegiac Peter and Alice, the latest offering in Michael Grandage’s West End season, which pairs the indomitable spirit of national treasure Judi Dench with the jittery passion of floppy-haired, emo pin-up Ben Whishaw.

The play is inspired by the meeting of two muses in 1932: Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Dench) and Peter Davies (Whishaw), of Wonderland and Neverland respectively. Might their encounter have led to the unburdening of troubled souls and an unforgettable stroll through memory, childhood and the big, wide world of the imagination?

Perhaps not, but playwright John Logan cleverly uses this encounter as a jumping-off point for a loquacious exploration of life, liberty and the pursuit of literary immortality. Christopher Oram’s magical flats seduce us as they do the inspiring innocents, until we too long for full immersion in fantasy. Away we go!

Who would choose reality, when it is such a grim business: Alice, unsettled by the attentions of lonely Rev Charles Dodgson (Nicholas Farrell), numbed by conventional marriage, left alone in the grand house she can’t afford to heat; Peter, shattered by war and familial tragedy, trapped by the controlling Barrie (Derek Riddell); and both haunted by the unnatural brightness of their inescapable alter egos (Ruby Bentall and Olly Alexander).

Can the creation of art justify damage to the human psyche? We might be tempted to look past such suggestions (Renoir’s depiction of little girls; the King of Pop’s own version of Neverland; the doomed fate of the adorable child actor), but we are post-Savillegate, and the damage done to Peter and Alice is irreparable. Neither suffer physical abuse, but something far more insidious.

However, our knowledge of such uncomfortable truths perhaps hampers the play’s revelations, and it sometimes drifts rudderless without a dynamic dramatic arc. In fact, despite being onstage together for the 90-minute duration, Dench and Whishaw are hardly even in dialogue, rather guest-starring in one another’s stories, an observation of one sparking off equivalent disclosures from the other in a dizzying kaleidoscope of ideas and fractured emotions.

Yet what it lacks in narrative momentum, it delivers double in thematic richness. Dench savours every morsel of a meaty part, compelling and convincing in wide-eyed innocence and caustic old age, heady excitement and anguished grief, while Whishaw teeters between basking in bliss and crumbling into hopelessness. It’s more than enough to induce an Alice-sized pool of tears.

It will be interesting to see if the play succeeds without such a stellar cast and production. It’s slightly hemmed in by its linear sections and verges on overwritten (it could be equally at home on radio), but I can’t honestly begrudge verbosity in the study of poetic masters whose words open the doors to other worlds.

Logan’s realm is a beautiful encapsulation of loss and longing. As much as we want the crocodile’s clock to stop ticking, so that we might remain in the golden afternoon of never-ending childhood, should life really stop at 12, paralysed by fear of adulthood, or at 18, in the trenches, or once we close the book? After all, growing up can be an awfully big adventure.

Perhaps we are safest in reality, just so long as, once we enter the Theatre, we remember how to fly.

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Reviewed 28/03/13/

By Marianka Swain
@mkmswain

9th Mar – 1st June 2013
Noël Coward Theatre, London, WC2N.

www.michaelgrandagecompany.com

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

 

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