Noel Coward Theatre, London

Theatre review: Peter and Alice - It's a long road to Wonderland

2.00

The children who inspired two classics meet as adults, but find themselves stuck for words

Second star to the right, and straight on till morning. That's the route to Neverland in Disney's version of Peter Pan. At last week's opening night of Peter and Alice – John Logan's biodrama about J M Barrie's and Lewis Carroll's child-friends – the stalls were packed with stars of the showbiz variety.

The Michael Grandage Company's West End season is also, of course, being boosted by the luminaries on stage. Judi Dench plays Alice Liddell Hargreaves perched in what looks like the dusty backroom of a bookshop. Ben Whishaw's rumpled Peter Llewelyn Davies approaches her nervously.

Reuniting Dench and Whishaw after the recent Bond film, also written by Logan, Peter and Alice should hold other fascinations too – even for those familiar with Finding Neverland, The Lost Boys mini-series, Dreamchild, or Alice I Have Been. Logan imagines what Liddell Hargreaves and Llewelyn Davies might have said when they met (fleetingly, but for real) as emotionally bruised adults, in 1932. How did they view their past intimacies with the said authors, or the celebrity foisted on each of them by Wonderland's child heroine and the boy who never grew up?

The massive downer is that Logan's script is leaden. Parts of the duo's conversation run like a census questionnaire, with added trite philosophising ("There were five of you?" "Five boys, yes. Five brothers. And there were three sisters?" "Yes, we three Liddell girls, back in Oxford." "But you're 'Alice'." "As you're 'Peter'. But, after all, what's in a name?" "What isn't?")

Worse, we then slide into a jumble of memory and fantasy. Thankless bit parts include a faintly paedophilic Carroll, a possessive Barrie, a fey Peter Pan and a Wonderland Alice who, tiresomely, doubles as the sappy Wendy. However, Christopher Oram's set transforms spectacularly into a Victorian-style children's theatre. The closing scenes grow poignant, cataloguing later sorrows befalling Liddell Hargreaves and Llewelyn Davies. And Dench and Whishaw do sterling work throughout. He exudes traumatised delicacy even when sidelined as an onlooker. She alternates gamely between old lady and charmed 10-year-old. But it's the warm applause at the end that makes Dench beam with relief and real joy, the eternal little girl.

I also headed off on an adventure, to find a pop-up magic shop in London's East End where punters – it was said – need only wander in and say the name "Andres" to be whisked below stairs for a 10-minute show by the cult troupe Punchdrunk (a taster for their next production, The Drowned Man). Alas, owing to a misprint, the mystery venue was harder to locate than Neverland. After slogging up and down Kingsland Road for a teeth-chattering hour, I opted for the relative ease of locating Northampton. Turns out the correct address is Kingsland High Street. What a dismal farce.

And so to the East Midlands county town where a forgotten Alan Ayckbourn comedy, from 1963, has been revived by Cal McCrystal (of One Man, Two Guvnors renown). Mr Whatnot (Theatre Royal, Northampton **) is a curious hybrid, Marcel Marceau meets P G Wodehouse. A mute, piano-tuning clown (Juanma Rodriguez), accompanied by sound effects, is sucked into mimed tennis games and a bed-hopping romp at a country mansion. The longueurs are many, yet crazy fantasy sequences recompense, not least when high tea turns into trench warfare, with deafening explosions and the audience bombarded with scones. Liz Crowther is delightfully absurd as Her Ladyship, growling with predatory lust between twitterings.

At London's Royal Court, Dominic Cooke rounds off his tenure by premiering Bruce Norris's The Low Road (***), an enjoyable if hardly searing satire on capitalism. After the suburban setting of Norris's Clybourne Park, it's startling to find the new play to be a picaresque canter round 18th-century America, with touches of Laurence Sterne and Bertolt Brecht.

An amusingly apologetic Adam Smith (Bill Paterson) narrates the tale of anti-hero Jim Trumpett (Johnny Flynn), a foundling going on thieving pimp going on investment banker. Flynn needs more edge, and his digressions are more wacky than witty. Still, a collective hurrah for Cooke's fine ensemble.

 

'Peter and Alice' (0844 482 5141) to 1 Jun; 'Mr Whatnot' (01604 624811) to 6 Apr; 'The Low Road' (020-7565 5000) to 11 May

 

Critic's Choice

London’s Young Vic brings back its hit production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, starring an electrifying Hattie Morahan (2 to 20 Apr). Another returning hit, This House, James Graham’s droll depiction of Westminster politics in the 1970s, is at the NT Olivier (to 15 May). On tour at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Barrie Rutter is the bullying Victorian patriarch in Rutherford & Son, Githa Sowerby’s tale of an industrial dynasty, directed by Jonathan Miller (2-13 Apr).

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