Fans of the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, written by John Logan, will be thrilled to discover that the author has put M and Q – ie, Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw – back together again as an ageing Alice in Wonderland and a neurasthenic, withdrawn Peter Pan.
So, the second offering of the Michael Grandage season is almost certainly off to a box-office flyer though, despite the weather, this is not the first fun-filled Christmas show of the year.
Rather, it’s a tortured imagining of how the conversation might have gone when the two real life models for those inventions of Lewis Carroll and J M Barrie – Alice Liddell Hargreaves and Peter Llewelyn Davies – met, as they did, in a London bookshop in 1932.
Dame Judi’s Alice, now eighty, with untended wispy white hair and wrapped in a fur stole, reveals that she’s sold the hand-written Alice manuscript to pay the heating bills. Whishaw’s Peter, haggard and unshaven, possibly drunk, suggests that childhood has given them a bank of memories to store against future suffering.
For as long as the play allows them, they give beautifully judged, melancholic but never sentimental performances, Dench ever practical in her snappy delivery and spiritual ache, Whishaw providing a much needed bolt of emotional fire and angst as his life crumbles backwards and forwards; he’s the most wonderfully watchable actor.
The two of them are at first “backstage” in a large, grimy, sunlit den of books before making a public appearance. And as the bookshop flies out, Christopher Oram’s toy theatre design sucks them into their own fictional selves, and their chat about loss of childhood and growing old spreads, tendril-like, into a theatrical, thematic overlapping.
There is old Lewis Carroll himself (Nicholas Farrell) silhouetted against a painted backdrop of the Cherwell River and the university buildings; and here comes J M Barrie (Derek Riddell) challenging Peter to an awfully big adventure. Then the young Peter (Olly Alexander) flies across the stage, and long-haired Alice (Ruby Bentall) ascends from below for the “golden day” of reckoning.
Fascination at how Logan will juggle the balls he’s thrown in the air gives way to disappointment as they thud to the floor. Older Alice asks the “molestation” question and penetrates Carroll’s “dark room” for the photo session, and older Peter suggests a different line of enquiry altogether in a snapshot of his brother Michael (Stefano Braschi) drowning in Oxford in the embrace of his lover – Peter Pan!
Things aren’t shaking out too well. Lewis has all but disappeared as the shadows of guilt and sorrow loom large and Alice endures the loss of her sons in the Great War. The younger pair, now locked in fictional conspiracy, drive their disappointing representatives back into the world of adulthood.
Grandage marshals all this with his customary aplomb, and the scenic switches are delightful, quoting the drawings of John Tenniel and Arthur Rackham, but never forging those worlds into a new vision. Alice, to add to the confusion, starts morphing into Wendy, finding common ground in two types of bossiness. I look forward to the Whatsonstage.com Q and A session. Or should that be the Q and M session?