ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Derby Theatre, Tuesday 6th December, 2016
Lewis Carroll’s classic dose of nonsense, word play and silliness poses at least one problem for those who wish to adapt it for the stage. Chiefly, it offers very little in the way of plot or character development. It is basically one strange thing after another until (spoiler!) Alice wakes up. It’s a dream and dreams, by and large, don’t have narrative structure or make much sense. Writer Mike Kenny addresses this problem by framing the visit to Wonderland in a present-day setting. Alice is a young teen facing an ‘important’ exam. The pressure placed on children to pass tests at various (too many) stages in their education is something to which we can all relate. No wonder she is having troubling dreams!
Abby Wain is a marvellous Alice, our guide through all the strangeness. Relatable, expressive and self-reliant, Alice is our touchstone for what is ‘normal’ in the weird world that surrounds her. Along the way, she meets outlandish characters who are reminiscent of people from her real life. Among them is Jack Quarton’s twitchy white rabbit, John Holt Roberts and Paula James as Tweedles Dee and Dum, and Joanna Brown’s imperious and tyrannical Queen of Hearts, whose remarkable costume would not be out of place on a fashion show catwalk! Neil Irish’s costumes bring colour and style to the blackboard set. Dominic Rye’s Mad Hatter is a dapper figure, sporting a kilt and playing the bagpipes – they’re a versatile bunch, these actor musicians – and he’s in great voice too. Ivan Stott’s original songs are all catchy and fun in a range of upbeat styles. A highlight for me is the Duchess’s Act One closing number, given plenty of welly by Elizabeth Eves, a perfectly pitched piece of character acting. It’s also fun to see Tweedledee and Tweedledum rocking out with electric guitars and Mohawks.
There is much to enjoy here. Mike Kenny intersperses lines and rhymes from Lewis Carroll with poetry of his own, giving us the key scenes we expect to see: the tea party, the caucus race, the trial, the croquet match, and the caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat (both played by a lively Keshini Misha). Director Sarah Brigham makes inventive use of the theatre’s revolve and there is canny staging of Alice’s changes of size, and her fall down the rabbit hole is daringly presented with breath-taking circus skills.
I do think greater contrast could be made between Alice’s real life and the surreal land of her dreams. Her real life is stylised, as befits a musical, but it’s essentially the same space and means of presentation as the supposed weirdness of Wonderland. I would have gone the Wizard of Oz route if I was in charge. But I’m not.
By the end, we feel like we’ve been treated to spectacle and entertained by an energised bunch of talented performers. Alice comes to a kind of self-awareness and is able to put the Big Scary Exam into perspective – a valuable message, delivered in an irresistibly enjoyable way.