Theatre Review: Peter and Alice (Noel Coward Theatre, London)

Child's play. The cast among Christopher Oram's larger-than-life toy theatre. Photograph: Johan Persson.

Child’s play. The cast among Christopher Oram’s larger-than-life toy theatre. Photograph: Johan Persson.

Rating: ****

This new play by John Logan marks the second show in Michael Grandage’s much anticipated season. Boasting a stellar cast of Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw it’s no wonder that the run has sold out. But after the success of Privates on Parade can Grandage and his illustrious company keep up the momentum?

The play is based on a meeting between Alice Liddell Hargreaves and Peter Llewellyn Davies in 1932. Alice is at a bookstore for the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition as she is the Alice that he had based the famous adventures on. She is accosted by Peter, a publisher who wants to convince her to have him publish her biography.  Despite her initial refusal, she soon discovers that Peter is who J M Barrie based Peter Pan on. On the revelation of their common ground, they reminisce and discuss their lives, their thoughts, their faults, and what it means to grow up.

With such great talent involved in the season it’s a shame that Grandage couldn’t find a playwright to match it. Logan’s play is tedious at best. The concept is interesting and has the potential to really explore its themes of being young, growing old, and examining the impacts that their respective author’s creations had on their lives. However, what we’re presented with is miserable wallowing in an attempt at something pseudo-philosophical.

If Logan’s goal was to make the audience as dreary and as depressed as his characters, then he’s succeeded. Despite the potential to hit a deep connection, and admittedly at points it does raise some thought-provoking treatsies, it never really comes to a specific point and seems just leave you feeling extremely glum rather than reflective and thoughtful.

To add insult to injury it’s also badly written. Dialogue and monologues are forced and heavy in their language, the book Peter and Alice are insufferable, and Logan’s attempts at humour are woefully awkward and contrived. Part fantastical, part biographical, and part attempt at sage, it’s a muddled and messy text. Needlessly maudlin and tiresomely existential this is a play that doesn’t deserve a West End platform.

Yet Grandage et al manages to turn Logan’s play into dazzling but solemn whimsy. Christopher Oram’s set is wildly colourful and bristles with wonder. Behind the drab bookstore back room of the opening scene lies a larger-than-life Victorian toy theatre, populated by vivid painted flats and sketches of characters from Carroll’s and Barrie’s original illustrations. The juvenile wonderment it evokes is inescapable.

Dench and Whishaw also give tremendous performances. Dench is almost unrecognisable as the down-trodden, terse, yet somehow spritely and optimistic octogenarian who refuses to grow up. She manages to bring a lightness to her character and never over indulges in the pathos. She is tragic yet charming. Whishaw as the troubled middle-aged Peter who is unable to stay young is lucid but vulnerable. Often hoisted by his own petard in his attempts to expose the faults in Alice’s machinations, the moments his countenance crumbles are devastating and compelling. You can’t take your attention away from either of them, even with the distractions of the other characters on stage, who, whilst solid, pale in comparison.

But it’s Grandage’s direction that makes this production and cements his status as a legendary director. He manages to bring fluidity to the play’s untidiness with a control of meter and pace across the 90 minutes ensuring you’re engage and interested throughout. His use of interaction, movement, and distance between characters enhances the themes that are trying to be put across and holds your interest: the sinister closeness of the authors to the characters, the fraught distance between Peter and Alice in their polemic battle of ideas and histories, and the energy and the amount of space the book characters take up, squashing and exhausting their real life counterparts to the fringes.

All in all, you couldn’t have asked for a better production and leading actors. Both cast and creatives hold your attention and amazement to the point that the fact that the play is unworthy of their talent becomes excusable. Their product of their time and effort makes this a must see despite the advice that you should try to ignore the text, and possibly slip a few Prozac into your fruit pastilles.

Peter and Alice plays at the Noel Coward Theatre, London, WC2N 4AU until 1 June 2013. SOLD OUT. Contact the theatre for details on returns on 0844 482 5140.

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