By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON (Reuters) - Actress Judi Dench may be battling deteriorating eyesight and a failing memory but the veteran performer showed no sign of faltering when she teamed up with fellow James Bond star Ben Whishaw on a London stage on Monday.
Dench, 78, one of Britain's most-respected actresses, has tackled a list of stage and film roles over her career, at ease with Shakespeare as in Hollywood, playing M in seven Bond movies before bowing out of 007's life in last year's "Skyfall".
It emerged a year ago that Dench was suffering from macular degeneration, the leading cause of severe vision loss in people over 60, and she relied on friends to read scripts to her.
This month she told a television interview she took fish oil tablets daily to boost her memory and remember her lines but said she had no intention of slowing down or stopping acting.
Dench won nothing but praise on Tuesday for joining 32-year-old Whishaw, the gadget guy Q in James Bond, in a new play, "Peter and Alice", by American playwright John Logan who co-wrote "Skyfall".
"(Dench) lends to Alice her brilliance at combining a sense of tart, witty combativeness with a reverberant depth of bruised humanity," wrote critic Paul Taylor in the Independent although he was less enamoured with the play, giving it three stars out of five.
"Dench is unmatchable," raved the Times critic Libby Purves, giving the play that "breaks your heart open" five stars.
Logan's play imagines a real-life meeting between an elderly Alice Liddell Hargreaves and 30-something Peter Llewellyn Davies at a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932, the people who inspired Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan".
As the two start talking and look back to their childhoods, the gaps start to emerge between the fantasies of the stories they inspired and the harsh reality they faced as adults, confronting loss, death, illness and alcoholism.
The 90-minute play, painfully moving, was described as a tenderly sketched portrait of life's challenges.
"No one expresses that pain and resilience quite as acutely yet stoically as Judi Dench, and she is ideally partnered by the more depressively hang-dog presence of Ben Whishaw for a beautiful study in contrasts of how they deal with life's blows," wrote critic Mark Shenton in the Stage.
The true story of the five Davies brothers, whom Barrie befriended, is tragic. The eldest, George, died in the trenches of World War I, while Michael, the second youngest, committed suicide aged 20, and Peter, the middle child, killed himself by throwing himself in front of a London train in 1960 aged 63.
The case of Alice Hargreaves (nee Liddell) is almost as sad. She lost two of her three sons in World War I and ended up broke after her husband's death, selling off the original 1864 "Alice" manuscript to raise cash. She died in 1934.
"One of Judi Dench's great strengths, seen in countless Shakespearean heroines such as Viola and Beatrice, is her ability to combine ecstasy and melancholy, witnessed in abundance here," wrote the Guardian's critic Michael Billington, giving the play four stars.
"Peter and Alice", running at London's Noel Coward theatre until June 1, is Logan's first new play since "Red" which opened in London in 2009 and went on to win six Tony awards, Broadway's highest honours, in 2010.
(Editing by Sophie Hares)