Peter & Alice, Noël Coward ✭✭✭✭

John Logan’s new play, Peter and Alice, could be mistaken for merely a quaint piece of deliciously acted theatre by the Michael Grandage Company, but it asks a lot of hard questions about the sacrifices we make when we grow up.

This is Peter Pan. Well, sort of. This is Peter Davies, the namesake and inspiration for JM Barrie’s literary creation. Time has passed and, despite claiming never to grow up, he has, in fact, grown up. A dishevelled character this Peter, played beautifully by the wonderful, vulnerable Ben Whishaw. And this, this is Alice Liddell-Hargreaves, on whom Lewis Carroll drew inspiration for his Alice in Wonderland. She is older now but full of all the dancing fire you’d expect from that curious girl all grown up – a fire that Judi Dench brings with aplomb. Logan imagines an encounter between these two literary muses. What Logan’s script lacks in fluidity, it makes up for with a scattering of almost Wildean bons mots.

The precision of Dench’s performance and the delicacy of Whishaw’s portrayal are excellent

Dench’s Alice re-enacts her precocious younger self with delight sparkling in her eyes. Whishaw teeters on tip-toe with the flurried excitement of an eight year old. These performances aren’t merely biographical; a list of facts and dates. These are living memories; feelings, sensations brought to life.

The set (another beautiful creation from designer Christopher Oram) is reminiscent of a Victorian toy theatre, rising and folding back, peeling off layer by layer to reveal the surreal landscapes of memories and imagined worlds of Neverland and Wonderland.

Under Grandage’s skilled direction, the cast of seven weave in and out of both childhoods, knitting the two stories together, throwing out all sorts of interesting questions and conclusions as they go. However, like Oram’s set, it’s all in the detail. The show has a strong pulse and lots of heart, but what is missing is that same detail in some of the ensemble performances. The precision of Dench’s performance and the delicacy of Whishaw’s portayal are excellent, but there are moments elsewhere that are painted with a wider brush.

Ultimately the play highlights the choice we all have – to embrace or to neglect the realities of growing up. “I can be the lonely old woman in the draughty room” , Alice says  “Or I can be Alice. I choose Alice.”

**** (4stars)
Runs until 1st June
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