First thoughts: Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw in #PeterandAlice
Review: Proof at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Second thoughts: Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw in Peter and Alice

PAblurbWhen Ben Whishaw's Peter Llewelyn Davies arrives on the Noel Coward Theatre stage, his is a slightly dishevelled appearance. He is half way to growing a moustache and beard and his hair looks like it has hastily and not quite successfully been dampened down to tame it. He nervously attempts flatten it throughout.

His clothes look well-worn and either he has lost weight or they didn't quite fit to start with. This is a man who cares little about his appearance or has cares enough to distract himself from it most of the time.

Judi Dench's Alice Liddell Hargreaves, by contrast, is well turned out in a nice dress and a fur stole although she leans heavily on a stick. She has a slightly snooty, guarded air.

For the next hour and a half Alice and Peter spar, debate and peel back the layers to reveal two very different, yet similar lives. Both inspired famous childrens literary characters: Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. They are the equivalent of JK Rowling having based Harry Potter and Hermione Granger on people she knew and telling the world who they were.

Peter and Alice is a multi-layered piece that on one level examines how fame affected the two 'muses' but on other it looks at childhood, innocence, memories and what it means to grow up.

Peter feels resentful about how his life has become intrinsically linked with the forever youthful Peter Pan. He is a news story: Peter Pan gets married, Peter Pan opens a publishing house. But this isn't simply about not being able to shake off fame he never asked for it. Peter is far more complex than that. Is the resentfulness transference for a childhood ruined by tragedy? Does Pan serve as a bitter reminder of happier times that preceded that tragedy?

For Alice it is transference of a different sort. At first she views her brief time with Lewis Carroll through rose tinted spectacles, a time when she felt special to be singled out from her sisters who were growing up. But the truth or somewhere near it is gradually teased out.

Writer John Logan has blended Alice and Peter's conversation - the two met in real life - with snatches of conversations with JM Barrie, Lewis Carroll and members of their families. Sometimes the younger Alice and Peter is portrayed by Dench and Whishaw and sometimes by Ruby Bentall as Alice in Wonderland and Olly Alexander as Peter Pan so that fiction and fact swirl together.

It is a device that takes a little getting used to and will probably gel better as the play gets into its stride (this was first preview). The young Peter and Alice provide some contrasting light relief to the grown up conversation with Peter Pan particularly getting some funny lines.

But ultimately this play is about peering beneath the surface images, seeing beyond the jolly childhood of the girl that inspired Alice in Wonderland and the boy who inspired Peter Pan. Its emotional charge is one that slowly grows to a final punch in the guts.

I'm already looking forward to seeing it again later in the run when everyone has had a chance to relax into it a bit more. Dench and Whishaw weren't quite firing on all cylinders but if they can make me laugh and cry at the first preview then it is more than half way there.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on Peter and Alice I scribbled down some immediate reactions last night. Poly, who got us the fab front row seats, has also posted her views.

Peter and Alice is the second play in Michael Grandage's season at the Noel Coward Theatre and runs until 1 June.

Recently seen:

Longing, Hampstead Theatre

A Time To Reap, Royal Court Upstairs

Joe Wright's Trelawny of the Wells, Donmar Warehouse

James McAvoy's Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios