The play concerns an English family, the Greys, that have become estranged. The father, a colonel, and his wife, the titular Alice, have been away in India and leaving their son and daughter in London with a relative. They have been gone for five or six years. There is also an infant Molly who was sent home from the Orient a short time after her birth. The play begins when a telegram arrives saying that the truant parents will soon return. Cosmo, the son, is a distraught because he fears his father will want to kiss him. He is 13 years and very concerned with being perceived as manly, There is also a nurse who has been caring for Molly for almost a year and has developed very maternal feelings for her. She fears that she will no longer be able to care for Molly.
The central character in the drama is Amy, the daughter. She is a vivacious, young, precocious, and slightly misinformed 17 year old. She is excited about her mother's arrival and plans to love her with all her heart. Both Amy and Cosmo have unclear memories of their parents. The play takes place during the High Victorian period of English history, so communication is not like it is today. Amy and her friend, Ginevra, have been attending several plays from which they feel they are learning about life. The plays they have seen, according to their descriptions, are very cheesy melodrama's involving scorned women and Lotharios.
The parents return and express their concerns that their children will no longer love them. The Colonel has a tough time bonding with Cosmo but makes some headway. He also manages to charm infant Molly. Alice fails with both Molly and Cosmo. She is determined to succeed with Amy but taking poor advice from the Colonel manages to put Amy off. Amy believes she knows much more about life then her mother does, which leads Alice to think she has been involved is some nefarious lifestyle.
Trouble deepens when an old friend of the Colonel and Alice, Steve Rolling, shows up. Amy mistakes Steve for a rake who has led Alice astray from her marital duties, much like the characters in the plays she has seen. She decides to sacrifice her honor to save her mother's, like many of the heroines from those same plays. This leads to a very funny scene in Steve's rooms that uses the conventions of farce.
The play is very enjoyable, although very dated. It is interesting to read because it is written unlike any play I have ever read. The stage directions are in a semi-prose style and they have a narrative voice that engages in many conspiratorial asides to the audience. For a time the play even eschews the convention of have the characters lines follow their names. The asides are funny, pithy and full of really neat hints for actors about how to play things.
I think the film version works better than the play because the kind of plays that serve as the framework for Amy's misunderstandings are not really done anymore. While the play expects you to know that style, the film begins with Amy and Cosmo watching one of the plays, so that we, the audience, understand from whence her misconceptions arose. It's very funny to see the play with arch acting style. The play is great fun but I think it would only connect with a limited audience. I'm glad I'm one of them.