The second production in the Michael Grandage Company’s inaugural season sees Skyfall co-stars Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw reunited with the Bond film’s writer John Logan to tell the story of the real-life inspirations behind two of British literature’s best known characters Peter Pan and Alice In Wonderland.
Through a single door at the side of the stage, Peter Llewelyn Davies and Alice Liddell Hargreaves enter the dingy backroom of a bookshop where they gather for the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition. So shallow is the stage, the actors almost teeter on the edge, an edge that the pair metaphorically falls over as they plunge into a dark and sinister adventure where they relive the events of their childhood and the relationships they developed with the authors who published works based on their existence.
Leaving behind the dusty bookshelves, Peter and Alice are transported to a vibrant world, where – courtesy of Christopher Oram’s fairy tale-inspired set – two dimensional layers of illustrated scenery, like pages of a picture book, play home to pirates, Cheshire cats, crocodiles, Mad Hatters and the Queen of Hearts.
From M and Q to characters of a different kind, Dench and Whishaw’s acting abilities translate just as well on stage as they do on screen. Dench endows Alice with a disdainful cynicism – questioning and undermining Whishaw’s younger and, in her eyes, less worldly Peter – through which streaks of wit emerge as she converses with the man who inspired the story about the boy who never grew up.
Boasting a harder, less penetrable exterior that houses the dark and troubled mind of a boy who, owing to his father’s illness, was perhaps forced to grow up a little too quickly, the weakness of Whishaw’s Peter is gradually revealed through choked words and quivers in his otherwise stern and resolute voice.
A striking contrast to this tormented soul, Ruby Bentall’s Alice In Wonderland and Olly Alexander’s Peter Pan capture the innocence of childhood, adding a carefree dimension to the antagonistic relationship between the fictional characters, the individuals who inspired them and the writers – depicted disparagingly as manipulative men by Nicholas Farrell and Derek Riddell – who made their reality into fiction.
Tormented by reality – a reality where boys never grow up because they die on battlefields – both Alice, a woman left destitute by the death of her husband who seeks refuge in past memories, and Peter, a man on the brink of a breakdown, inevitably prefer the fantasy of their counterparts to the harsh and morbid reality of their lives, but when fantasy is out of their reach, there is only one path left for them to take.