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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Noel Coward


  Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw/ Ph: Johan Persson

On the silver screen, we’ve seen him as the nervy techno-nerd Q and her as the magisterial M, a pair of guiding geniuses behind the hazardous exploits of 007. Now Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench appear in the guise of a quite different double act, and they once again prove a compelling combination.
This new drama by John Logan re-imagines a real-life meeting between Alice Liddell and Peter Llewelyn Davies, respectively the inspirations for Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland" and JM Barrie’s "Peter Pan." But rather than offer a straightforward bio-drama, Logan presents a theatrical fantasia, part nursery rhyme, part tone poem and almost entirely enchanting. Film fans in search of the kind of thrills that Logan served up as screenwriter in the Bond movie Skyfall, or even much action of any kind, will find themselves frustrated. Here, the flavour is elegiac, meditative, lyrical, as memories ebb and flow on a tide of yearning, frustrated desire, love, sorrow and regret. Michael Grandage’s production – the second in his inaugural season with his new company – is elegantly modulated, sumptuously designed and exquisitely acted. Its pleasures are of a dramatically muted kind; nevertheless they are potently poignant.
Liddell and Llewelyn Davies met at an exhibition of artworks by Carroll (whose real name was Reverend Charles Dodgson) in 1932. She was by this time in her 80s, Davies in his 30s. But despite the years that lie between them, they share a kinship and a perpetual youth, frozen forever by literary fame in childhood, a notoriety that both sets them apart and imprisons them. They are, as Dench’s Liddell, still girlish in flounced dress, puts it, “children born out of sadness and loneliness” – the afflictions suffered by their creators, both isolated and emotionally incomplete men, who have bequeathed a generous legacy of their own unhappiness to their famous creations.
The two, who are scheduled to make a surprise appearance together at the exhibition, have their first encounter in a storeroom. As designed by Christopher Oram, the place has a strange, underwater quality, with distant chatter and laughter drifting in from the gallery beyond and a sea-greenish light filtering through the grubby skylight. As Whishaw’s delicate, brittle, vulnerable Peter and Dench’s bright-eyed Alice with her frayed glamour journey back into the past, the setting dissolves, to be replaced by a bright, oversized toy theatre. The Red Queen, the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat loom, life-sized, fill the proscenium; and wandering into view, from playrooms and mermaid lagoons, come Olly Alexander’s puckish Peter Pan and Ruby Bentall’s pert, round-faced Alice, casting a coolly cruel, critical child’s eye over the adults their alter egos have become. “You’ve forgotten how to fly,” the immortal sprite-boy remarks with bitter disappointment to Llewelyn Davies. And Alice gazes with merciless disapproval upon Liddell, who abandoned her dream of reclaiming her name and winning her own acclaim as a poet, settling instead for a marriage and domesticity that stifled her.
Here, too, are Carroll (Nicholas Farrell) and Barrie (Derek Riddell), unconsciously unkind in the demands they make of children too young to understand them, and too absorbed by their own inadequacies to notice the damage they may be doing in bestowing such a restrictive sort of celebrity. Logan’s language is a vivid storybook of bright images. Llewlyn Davies, shattered by his experiences in the Great War, is drawn as a broken Humpty Dumpty, his life leaking from him and pooling at his helpless feet; Alice is the eager, dancing little girl crammed into whalebone corsets and conventionality. This is, in a sense, a hymn to hope, filled with the unfettered dreams of childhood, and with doleful compassion for our readiness to set them aside as we grow up. It demands patience and close attention; but it is graceful and achingly gorgeous.


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