Big ideas for little people in charming Alice opera

“Curiouser and Curiouser” Civilian Theatre thought to himself as he entered Holland Park. He was lost in the apparent fact that it was supposed to be British summertime and yet here he was and the sun was out and there had been no chance to use his umbrella at all. Disappearing into the machinations of such an absurd situation, Civilian Theatre soon found himself back where he had begun and had entirely forgotten the wise advice to “begin at the beginning…and go on till you come to the end; then stop”

Pulling himself back together (how silly, he thought to himself, how do you pull yourself together when you can never be apart, because, or unless, you are a part of yourself) he hurried on. “Oh dear, oh dear, I shall be too late” he began to panic, but luckily at that moment he ran straight into a café. It was such a hot day that purchasing a refreshing a little drink in a tall bottle (or was it a tall drink in a little bottle, oh my, everything was getting into quite a muddle) seem an entirely reasonable proposition.

“DRINK ME” the bottle screamed as he headed on towards his destination. And if you are the sort of person who trifles with minor details (or is a Major in detailed trifles) then you may be interested to head to the Yucca Lawn, nestled behind the big house. If you find yourself reaching the chess set from the north then turn around, or, of course, turn around two times if you reach it from the south.

Well what a strange effect this bottle has, thought Civilian Theatre, as he was handed a square cushion for his round behind. Of average height and average rotundness, he soon discovered that he must have gained gargantuan proportions because he appeared to tower over ranks of assembled small people. Some of whom seemed to be under the control of equally oversized people. Closer examination revealed them to be children, lots and lots of children. Of all shapes and sizes. But few larger than medium. And some probably only medium-rare.

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Peter and Alice and a whole lack of wonder

Peter and Alice – Noel Coward Theatre, until 01 June 2013

It all works so well on paper: Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram as director and set designer; John Logan behind the script; Ben Wishaw and Dame Judi Dench heading the cast. If any more of a hook was needed to guarantee an audience, the plot concerns Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland (or at least their real-life inspirations).

What could possibly go wrong?Peter and Alice - Ben Wishaw and Judi Dench

In some ways very little.

The major problem is that very little goes right.

For the audience, Peter and Alice is an almost pitch-perfect study in the average, the mediocre, the reassuringly dull. No doubt the brigades that travel on mass from the Home Counties, that can afford to sit in the stalls, that buy a programme, a drink and an ice-cream, that keep the West End at near maximum-capacity and that are, without doubt, vital to the on-going vitality of the London theatre scene, are going to be satisfied.

However Charles Dodson and J.M Barrie would be appalled. Not necessarily by the character assassinations perpetrated on them by Logan, in scenes that have a loose connection to the truth, but certainly by the sheer lack of imagination displayed by everyone involved in the production. Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland are two of the finest examples of the flexibility of the adult mind; the sheer imaginative range of Carroll’s wordplay and of Barrie’s adventuring is a joy that has not receded in over one hundred years.

Peter and Alice fails to capture one tenth of this joy, this anarchic free-spiritedness, in one hundred minutes.

Reading the description of Barrie’s original production of Peter and Wendy one learns that Tinkerbell was created by the expedient use of a mirror to reflect a light onto the stage so that it would seem to dart and fly. This illusion, using the simplest mechanism imaginable, holds more wonder than the entire po-faced philosophising of Logan’s script.

To begin on the positives; Christopher Oram’s set is a delight. Opening on a musty office, it unfolds to a reveal the reassuringly sight of a chequer-board set and instantly recognisable Tenniel-inspired drawings of familiar characters. Given Peter Pan’s origins on stage it was a nice touch to reflect this in the use of classic flats that drop from the sky and retain a resolute two-dimensionality that highlights the artifice that lies behind theatre, and that means it will only ever be a simulacrum of reality.

Ben Wishaw and Judi Dench are perfectly adequate, and one hopes that, given this was a preview, there is a certain vitality that is still to come as they feel their way into the roles. Dench has a commanding presence that cannot help but be transferred to her characters – it is hard to imagine her playing a particularly vulnerable part. Her Liddell has developed a cast-iron exterior to the pressures of the world, and this contrasts well with Wishaw’s more vulnerable Peter Davies, a man who has not come to terms with the world as it is and the man who he will always be.

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