Bedtime stories may never be the same again, as Skyfall writer John Logan explores the 'real' Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan in a new play directed by Michael Grandage at the Noel Coward Theatre.
Peter and Alice reunites Bond stars Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, last seen together as Q and M in their action-packed film outing last year. Logan explores the effect international fame had on real life literary muses Alice Liddell Hargreaves and Peter Llewellyn Davies.
Like another high-profile play starring a dame, Peter and Alice is similar to Helen Mirren's The Audience; relying on intelligent speculation of imagined conversations. Meeting for the first time at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932, Alice and Peter confess their troubled lives of living in the shadow of fictional characters, peeling back layers of memories.
It isn't all adventures down rabbit holes and fun in Neverland: Logan gives us the loss of youthful innocence, bereavement, grief, shell shock, insanity and questionable relationships with writers J M Barrie (Derek Riddell) and Lewis Carroll (Nicholas Farrell).
The First World War cut short the innocence of a generation and resulted in two dead sons for Alice and a nervous breakdown for Peter. Peter and Alice may not cover new biographical ground, but it will rip you apart with poignant observations that many can relate to. "I think I know what childhood's for," muses Peter, "It's to give us a bank of happy memories against future suffering." Killer lines slice through the fairy tale atmosphere, as the bitter truth of Alice and Peter's shared painful experiences of growing up are laid bare.
Throughout the shocking and raw depictions of trauma, Logan keeps returning to the tragedy of growing old, like a track stuck on repeat - making us wonder if the writer is going through a mid-life crisis. We know that Peter Pan never grew old, whilst Peter Llewellyn Davies quite obviously did - the constant reminders sometimes feel like a narrative going around in circles.
Of the two tortured souls, it is Peter who struggles the most in coming to terms with the unwanted fame of his literary reflection, Whishaw plays the bumbling Englishman with a delicate tenderness, a quiet nervous anger that sometimes threatens to overpower his mild manners.
Past roles in Dench's prolific career have seen her often playing stoic women, experienced, worldly, cynical yet tender - Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, M in the Bond films - but it's a joy to see Dench's fresh portrayal of Alice as a ten-year-old girl, happy, spontaneous and care-free.
The literary Peter Pan (Olly Alexander) and Alice in Wonderland (Ruby Bentall) appear on stage, in full role as the story book personas, throwing in comments here and there. Colourful, yes, but the narrative device sometimes makes the stage just feel cluttered. The pair really come into their element when they turn on the real Peter and Alice, listing their weaknesses; racist views, suicidal thoughts, drug use. More physical and verbal conflict between the real Peter and Alice and their fictional reflections would have added a little adrenaline to the stage.
Despite restraint shown in some scenes, Logan's writing packs an unexpected punch at many turns. Peter and Alice is a thoughtful and ambitious play, unflinching in the treatment of the loss of childhood dreams. With Logan's connections to the film world, including two further Bond films in the pipeline, it would be unsurprising to see this searing play make the leap to the big screen.
Peter and Alice is running at the Noel Coward Theatre, London, 25 March - 1 June 2013.