Let’s be honest about this, the inevitable draw of this play is not John Logan’s writing; or its intriguing premise – what happened when the real Alice in Wonderland, Alice Liddell Hargreaves met the real Peter Pan, Peter Llewellyn Davies; nor is it this play’s inclusion in Michael Grandage’s much vaunted helming of this season at the Noel Coward Theatre, but the fact that it stars Britain’s best-loved theatrical Dame, Judy Dench and one of Britain’s finest and most magnetic young actors Ben Whishaw. The lure of seeing the old ‘M’ and the new ‘Q’ seemingly proving to be irresistible if the night after night ‘House Full’ signs are any guide.
Despite the quality of the writer, the play suffers fundamentally from a lack of variety in tone and a heaviness of dialogue. It is indeed the acting that is this play’s salvation. Beautifully pitched throughout, it is in conversation with Peter Llewellyn-Davies, who along with his brothers provided J.M. Barrie with the inspiration for the boy who never grew up, that the reason for the pair’s unfulfilled and ultimately painful lives is revealed.
Llewellyn-Davies forces Liddell to re-examine the relationship between Lewis Carroll (Reverend Charles Dodgson), her ten year old self and her two sisters, and confront the fact that the albeit repressed relationship, was often inappropriately sexually charged. Layer by layer the reasons for Liddell’s subsequent bitterness and defensiveness come to light.
Llewellyn-Davies’ relationship with J. M. Barrie was born of tragedy and inevitably was destined to end as it started. This performance is Whishaw at his best: depicting a character of sensitivity and emotion. His affecting portrayal is genuinely heart-breaking and the show of vulnerability so convincing that many in the auditorium were genuinely moved to tears. He is an utterly magnetic presence on stage.
Dench and Whishaw are ably supported by stage and screen veteran Nicholas Farrell as Dodgson and Derek Riddell as J.M. Barrie. Peter Pan (Olly Alexander) and Alice (Ruby Bentall) also appear as mischievous presences throughout the piece.
This is not a play for those wishing to experience a heart-warming trip back to their childhood literary favourites, rather it is a beautifully acted, thought-provoking but ultimately heartbreaking tale of two lives destroyed, through no fault of their own, at the hands of people who supposedly loved them.