John Logan’s new play Peter and Alice explores how stories and fantasy are used as escapism and can sterilise the pains of the past and present. Michael Grandage’s production explores the vicissitudes of growing up, and the realisation that stories and theatre are little more than illusion. For 90 minutes (running without an interval), Peter and Alice sweeps you into a world as curious as Wonderland or Neverland and leaves you with the enormous sense of coming crashing back down to reality once it is over.

A chance meeting between Alice Liddel Hargreaves (Judi Dench) and Peter Llewellyn Davis (Ben Wishaw), the real- life inspirations for Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is the catalyst for both to explore their positions of never being able to escape the shadows of their fictional selves. Neither Hargreaves nor Davies are able to reconcile their loneliness and growing sense of mortality with the popular images that have immortalised them as carefree children – images that will be remembered hundreds of years after their deaths.

Dench and Wishaw give stellar performances. Dench lives up to all the expectations of her excellence, transforming her 78-year-old body into that of a ten- year-old when interacting with Nicolas Farrel’s Lewis Carroll; she stands on her tiptoes and cocks her ear, forever in expectation of the next instalment of the Wonderland story. Ben Wishaw, on the other hand, regresses back into childhood with less ease and cuts a more melancholic figure on the stage. It is more difficult for Davies to escape the shadow of Pan than it is for Hargreaves to distance herself from the golden summer she spent on the riverbank with Carroll. Wishaw’s monologues, charting his seminal moments of growing up and experiencing love and pain for the first time are delivered with excellence, and are harrowing to watch. Their hardened adult sensibilities are held in tension with the sprightly flesh-and-blood incarnations of Alice in Wonderland (Ruby Brentall) and Peter Pan (an absurdly puckish Olly Alexander). This pair’s naivety and innocence is to be pitied almost, as they are ignorant to what is made painfully clear to the audience: that Alice sexually fascinated Carroll, and that Peter’s brother Michael was a source of homoerotic torment for Barrie.

Designer Christoper Oram fits a second proscenium arch within the Noël Coward’s stage, emphasising the production’s self-reflexive awareness that storytelling is an illusion. The set is painted in a pantomime-esque style and the ropes that enable Pan to ‘fly’ are thick and clearly visible. This frames the production with an ironic self- consciousness that this play is, in itself, a fiction, therefore adding an extra layer of intensity to the dialogues between Dench and Wishaw exploring the theatrical value of their situations.

An emotional rollercoaster of a production, Peter and Alice offers something for everyone, whether this is a warning against losing your childhood sense of fun or as a looking-glass study of adult self-awareness. Dealing with the universal theme of the inexorable passage of time, Peter and Alice makes you realise that life (unless it is immortalised in fiction) is brief.

Peter and Alice is running at the Noël Coward Theatre until 1 June 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Michael Grandage website.