Reuniting ‘Skyfall’s writer with two of its biggest stars, John Logan’s ‘Peter and Alice’ is as surefire a hit as any Bond blockbuster. Which is lovely, but despite powerful turns from Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, the second production in director Michael Grandage’s Noël Coward season is an overcooked, underwritten affair that feels like an object lesson in what can go awry when a tricksy new play is put cold into the West End.
In it, Logan imagines – rather vividly, as it turns out – what happened at a real 1932 meeting between Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Dench), inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice, and Peter Llewelyn Davies (Whishaw), namesake and part-inspiration for JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. A cosy set up, but ten minutes in ‘Peter and Alice’ blindsides you with a headlong leap down the rabbit hole, as interwar England falls away and we’re plunged into a world formed from the duo’s overlapping memories.
Gorgeously rendered by designer Christopher Oram, most of ‘Peter and Alice’ takes place in a strange, nonlinear realm of flashback and fantasy in which Neverland and Wonderland intersect and painful childhood memories of surrogate fathers collide with mocking manifestations of the pair's fictional alter-egos.
The play has the makings of something special, but while Grandage directs nimbly enough, the trippy flourishes feel contrived and strangely joyless – probably because they’re so at odds with the bleakness of a work that broods heavily on the loss of childhood and the mass end of innocence that was the Great War.
The acting is all you’d hope for: Whishaw’s is the real stand-out turn, mesmerising as a frail Peter left incandescent with bitterness. Dench is slightly underused, though a winning mix of tough and vulnerable, while of the smaller roles Nicholas Farrell stands out as the pitiable Carroll.
But the cast uniformly fare better in the play’s straighter moments, and it’s a shame that the madly zig-zagging form so frequently obfuscates the content. If this short play had been written out a bit more, its eccentricities might have been able to breathe convincingly. As it is, ‘Peter and Alice’ too often resembles a good drama having a bad trip. Andrzej Lukowski