New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 19th November, 2011

If you want to adapt Lewis Carroll’s nonsense story for another medium, you have to impose a structure on it, and to some extent, a plot. Tim Burton went horribly wrong in his recent 3-D film with the bullshit prophecy story. Walt Disney was wiser with his animated version and let the weirdness speak for itself.

This new stage adaptation by the New Vic’s resident director, Theresa Heskins, expands Alice’s waking hours before the eventful dream. Gone are the pinafore and headband we usually associate with the character. This Alice is a feisty girl who lives and travels with her family on a narrowboat. The New Vic likes to Stoke things up in their productions, so Alice’s family stop off in the Potteries to earn enough money to feed themselves. Alice, played with a wide-eyed no-nonsense determination by Hannah Edwards, is an illiterate but adept mountebank, swindling pennies from passersby with a game of Find The Lady. She could have bounded off the pages of a Catherine Cookson novel. As she moves through the marketplace she encounters a man selling hats, a magician pulling a white rabbit from a hat, costermongers calling “Eat me”, presenting jam tarts on trays… You can see how this is going to go. The opening section is like Lionel Bart meets Arnold Bennett, with a nod to The Wizard of Oz. All the things Alice sees and hears are going to figure in her dream in due course.

Alice follows the conjuror into a theatre and falls, not down a rabbit hole, but through a stage trapdoor. And this is when, at last, the strengths of the production come to the fore. Presented in the round, the show cannot fall back on video effects and other flummery to meet the demands of this surreal series of events. Effects are practical and performed right before your very eyes. The joy of this, for the adults in the audience, is seeing how famous scenes are executed. Alice’s growing and shrinking are charmingly and amusingly done. The hapless gardeners paint white roses red in a simple but clever way in one of the funniest scenes of the night. The fearsome Jabberwock is part-dragon, part-trebuchet, part-mobility scooter – it is wheeled in twice: first to end the first half and then again to bite off the Red Queen’s head, an addition to the story not found in Lewis Carroll, but a million miles better than anything Tim Burton introduced. Tweedledee and Tweedledum are squabbling, sinister idiots whose battle, performed in a sort of remote combat, is energetic and funny. The Cheshire Cat is a huge, three-person puppet, moving with feline grace – there is such a lot to marvel at in this magical show. Costume designer Lis Evans and set designer Laura Clarkson really come into their own in depicting Lewis Carroll’s dreamscape and its peculiar population.

The score is a bit of a let-down. It’s perfectly serviceable to jolly things along but there is nothing really to make a song and dance about.

The best scene for me was the tea party with Simon Spencer-Hyde as a pugilistic and twitchy March Hare, Paschale Straiton as the bullied and narcoleptic Dormouse, and New Vic favourite (and mine) the incomparable Michael Hugo doing a star turn as the Mad Hatter. His rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat brought the house down. It is as weird and unearthly as it is hilarious.

The younger members of the audience laughed, commented or sat enrapt by the bizarre action unfolding in front of them. This is the true Wonderland: the theatre. I wonder if this mesmerising and entertaining Christmas Carroll is going to be bettered this Winter.

About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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