When Alice in Wonderland met Peter Pan she was a cantankerous old lady and he a gloomy dipsomaniac.
The play “Peter and Alice” by John Logan, now at London’s Noel Coward Theatre, is based on this real encounter in 1932 between 80 year-old Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Judi Dench) and 35 year-old Peter Llewelyn Davies (Ben Whishaw).
Hargreaves had inspired Lewis Carroll’s famous children’s books. Davies had been one of the sources of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Their lives were constantly shadowed by fictional versions of themselves. It was the meeting of two myths.
Logan (“Skyfall”) opens his story in a musty office. Hargreaves walks with a stick, and says words like “presumptuous” with hauteur. Davies is a shambolic literary type, bearded and gangly.
Suddenly the office morphs into a fantastical Victorian toy theater with stylized props. When Lewis Carroll (Nicholas Farrell) appears, Hargreaves loses her limp and skips like a schoolgirl.
J.M. Barrie (Derek Riddell) turns up and Davies behaves like a boy with him. The two main protagonists then switch in and out of being children, commenting upon their complicated relationships with the authors.
Peter Pan (Olly Alexander) arrives on a flying harness and the book-version of Alice (Ruby Bentall) pops up through a trap door. They comment on everything too.
That’s a heck of a lot of commentary. In fact there’s so much narration that there’s no room for a plot or conflict.
Yet the ability of Dench and Whishaw to change from children to adults is so compelling that their talents draw you in.
There’s nothing twee when Dench becomes a little girl; you can see the seeds of the older bossy matriarch in her. Whishaw is a painfully vulnerable boy, until Barrie brings him out of himself with adventure stories and laughter.
Michael Grandage directs the 90-minute show with customary fluidity, and Christopher Oram’s toy-theater set is charming. It makes the evening pleasant; it doesn’t make Logan’s play a masterpiece. Rating: ***.
Terence Rattigan’s 1946 hit “The Winslow Boy,” based on a real Edwardian legal battle, gets a reliably entertaining new production at the Old Vic.
When 13-year-old Ronnie Winslow (Charlie Rowe) is expelled from naval college after being accused of theft, his father (Henry Goodman) vows to clear his name.
He hires the celebrated barrister Robert Morton (Peter Sullivan) and the case goes all the way to the high court.
Rattigan’s play takes a while to get going (Anthony Asquith’s superb 1948 movie of the play contains much sensible trimming), and the early scenes of family life meander.
Once the volatile and arrogant Sir Robert appears, the battle for justice begins to spark with life.
It’s the sort of play in which people talk in perfectly constructed speeches. If director Lindsay Posner does nothing very original with it, he still ensures that it works its well-crafted magic, and draws fine performances from Sullivan and Goodman. Rating: ***.
“Peter and Alice” is at the Noel Coward Theatre. http://www.michaelgrandagecompany.com or +44-844-482-5138
“The Winslow Boy” is at the Old Vic. http://www.oldvictheatre.com or +44-844-871-7628
What the Stars Mean: ***** Excellent **** Very good *** Average ** Mediocre * Poor (No stars) Worthless
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(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)