The Theatreguide.London Review
Noel Coward Theatre Spring 2013
Lewis Carroll wrote Alice In Wonderland for young Alice Liddell. James M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan for Peter Llewelyn Davies and his brothers. And now playwright John Logan imagines a meeting between the adult Peter Davies and the elderly Alice Liddell Hargreaves.
What is it like to live your entire life in the shadow of an idealised version of your childhood self? What is it like to grow up and grow old in the ever-present company of a you who never grew up? What is it like to be inescapably famous for something someone else wrote? And how do you feel now about the man who imposed all this on you while giving the rest of the world a priceless gift?
Given the opportunity to speak their minds to just about the only other person in the world who can understand them – the only third party to this conversation I could imagine would be Christopher Milne – the two take turns exploring their memories and feelings in a frequently witty, sometimes insightful and occasionally touching exchange.
I won't give away much except to say that one has come to grips with the never-ageing doppelgänger better than the other and that, without raising the spectre of sexual aberration (which the play touches on most delicately and then withdraws from) both come to realise what very sad and lonely men their authors must have been to have searched out the company of children.
The major attraction of the show (and for many in the audience, who clearly wouldn't know their Alice from their Peter, the only draw) is the presence and performances of Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw as Mrs. Hargreaves and Mr. Davies. And purely as a display of quietly brilliant acting, it is a delight.
Not only do they get the opportunity to move backward and forward in time – watching Judi Dench lose seventy fictional years to dance with Nicholas Farrell's Reverend Dodgson is a true wonder – but they each skilfully take their characters on journeys of self-discovery.
Whishaw's Peter Davies enters the play unhappy but unsure why, and as he probes Mrs. Hargreaves' memories with an eagerness to discover that she is as tormented as he, Whishaw lets us watch him discover things about his own feelings that he didn't know coming in.
The grown-up Alice's journey is somewhat the converse, as Dench introduces us to a woman who has lived with the burden of Carroll's Alice for more than a half-century and is driven by Davies' probing to rediscover a bond with her.
It is almost worth the price of the ticket just to hear what Dench does with Alice's affirmation (and forgive me if I don't get this quite right), 'I'm eighty years old and there aren't many who love me. But I know the way to Wonderland.'
Nicholas Farrell as Carroll and Derek Riddell as Barrie both colour memory and flashback sequences with quiet pathos. Olly Alexander as Peter Pan and Ruby Bentall as Alice remind us of the fictional figures' inescapability, and Stefano Braschi plays several supporting roles adeptly.
Go to see the stars, but stay not only to be impressed by their acting but to be moved by what they and the playwright tell us about being merely human.