Tag Archives: Lewis Carroll

Working Wonders

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th December, 2018

 

Director James David Knapp brings his own adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic to the stage in this ponderous production.  This is an Alice who wonders about things rather than at them, as she is presented with riddles and cod philosophies from almost all the strange characters she encounters.

Ruth Waterson, making her Crescent debut, gives an assured performance as Alice, playing her as a serious, thoughtful child.  She comes to life when she joins in with the other characters: the caucus race, for example, and the Lobster Quadrille.  If Alice, our guide through this weird land, is so serious, the characters she encounters should be weirder, crazier, but they’re a bit po-faced too.

There is a lot to enjoy from the large cast.  Marcus Clarke’s Dodo shakes his tail-feathers and has a mad spark in his eye; later, his King of Hearts is delightfully dotty – he could do with a crown, though.  Erin Hooton’s twitchy White Rabbit, John Paul Conway’s snooty Knave, Niall Higgins’s Mock Turtle… Standing out is Molly Wood’s Duchess, a bedraggled eccentric, convincingly bonkers.  Jordan Bird’s Mad Hatter makes an arch, camp double act with Carl Foster’s March Hare, along with a fearsome French Dormouse (Ella-Louise McMullan) keeping them in check.  There is a delicious portrayal of the mad Queen of Hearts by Alice Macklin, capricious, volatile, tyrannical, truly psychopathic, and bringing a lot of oomph to the second act.  But I think I enjoy most of all the trio of gorblimey gardeners, played by Amelia Hall, William Stait and Ronnie Kelly.

James David Knapp provides a new twist in the tale.  It’s not easy bringing Carroll’s plotless novel to the stage to make a coherent piece, but Knapp provides a through-line – the material is on his side, with the disclaimer that not everything has to make sense.  He has clearly drilled his ensemble of children very well – every one of them is in step and focussed, which is no mean feat.

The costume department has excelled itself.  The designs of Dyjak Malgorzata combine what we expect of the characters with some innovative ideas, with the assistance of Vera Dean and Pat Brown to craft these wonderful creations.

The show works best during its absurd moments, rather than when Alice is being exhorted from all corners to ‘grow up’ – when she is clearly the most mature character on stage.   The production values, the talent, the ideas are all there.  All it needs, overall, is to lighten up, to – as Alice’s draconian mother is reminded to do – let its hair down.

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Off her head: Alice Macklin as the Queen of Hearts (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

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No Wonder

WONDERLAND

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 6th February, 2017

 

This musical already has a chequered history and now its latest version is on the road, hoping to garner the love of fans of shows like Wicked, perhaps, giving adults fantasy-based plots with grown-up versions of characters we all remember from childhood.   Unlike Wicked, which has strong source material in the books by Gregory Maguire, this Alice is purely the invention of writers Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy.  Their spin on Lewis Carroll is to give us a contemporary setting.  Alice is in her 40s, a divorcee and former teacher, living in a tower block – all well and good until you realise how emotionally immature she is, yearning for a knight to rescue her, desperate to escape into fantasy.

The mighty Kelly Ellis plays Alice, throwing herself into the nonsense of Wonderland as soon as she gets there.  Ellis is an impeccable performer but I can’t take to Alice, no matter how well sung and spiritedly acted she is.  Alice has a daughter, a starchy, matronly teen called Ellie (Naomi Morris) who reminds me of Saffy from Ab Fab – until she goes through the looking glass and then turns into a sassy, sulky child.  Also along for the ride is their neighbour from the tower block, Jack (Stephen Webb) a shy, tongue-tied admirer of Alice who goes through the looking glass and comes out as George Michael, complete with cheesy boy band – the highlight of the first act for me.

The score by Frank Wildhorn is serviceable and the lyrics by Jack Murphy are often witty – when you can hear them.  What brings this show crashing down is the book.  There are half-baked attempts at being profound, asking us to reflect (ha) on the ‘real’ us we see in the mirror.  There are half-arsed attempts at delivering a political message: the Mad Hatter (Natalie McQueen) comes through the looking glass as a power-crazed industrialist, distracted from her quest to overthrow the tyrannical queen.  “That’s how power works” is a constant refrain.  Spoiler: the residents of Wonderland decide they’d rather have a monarchy, with its constant threat of irrational capital punishment.

Wendi Peters is a revelation as the Queen of Hearts, belting out show tunes.  She makes an impression in the first act but then is absent for so long, I forget she’s in it.  Give this woman a tour of Gypsy, for pity’s sake.  I also like Ben Kerr’s March Hare and look forward to seeing him in something else.

Musical theatre veteran Dave Willetts is the White Rabbit – at least the writers have the sense to give him chance to demonstrate his mellifluous tones.  He’s still in great voice but navel-gazing songs about finding yourself and being your own invention always make me want to vomit, whatever the context.  Self-identity is also a theme here, from the Caterpillar’s repeated asking of ‘Who are you?’ (Kayi Ushe is good fun in this role) to Alice’s desire to regress into childhood, rather than face up to grown-up responsibilities and give up on the husband who crushed her emotionally.  Frankly, I couldn’t give a monkey’s.

The entire company works hard to sell us this curate’s egg.  Lucie Pankhurst’s quirky choreography, Grace Smart’s clever costumes, and Andrew Riley’s striking set, all support the likeable performers in the flogging of this dead horse of a story.  Carroll’s Alice is a child trying to make sense of the nonsensical adult world.  This Alice embraces the nonsense as a refuge from reality, but too many of the characters (like Tweedles Dum and Dee) are marginalised as chorus members to have any impact on her journey.

A bright spectacle well-performed but ultimately, I find it’s unsatisfying to take what passes through a rabbit’s hole and roll it in glitter.

kerry-ellis-as-alice-photo-by-paul-coltas

Kerry Ellis as Alice (Photo: Paul Coltas)

 

 


Christmas Carroll

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.

mad-hatter

Dominic Rye’s Mad Hatter enjoys tart an’ tea.

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.

alice

Alice (Abby Wain) in a key scene. KEY SCENE!!… Suit yourselves.

 


Muses muse

PETER AND ALICE

Noel Coward Theatre, London, Saturday 18th May, 2013

 

The premise of John Logan’s new play is ‘what if the boy who inspired Peter Pan and the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland met as grown-ups in real life?’  Logan gives us an answer to this ‘what if’ but also much more.

Peter Llewellyn Davies (Ben Whishaw) is a delicate man, scruffy in his tweed jacket and shapeless slacks.  He encounters Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Judi Dench) as they wait to take part in a talk or lecture about the books that sprang from their relationships with the authors.

As they wait, they compare experiences, what life has been like linked to their literary counterparts, and it soon becomes apparent there is a hint of Lady Bracknell to old Alice.  Peter stands his ground against her but it is clear he is uncomfortable.  Rather than extending this amusing interaction for the whole of the running time, Logan gives us something more fantastical.  The book-ridden waiting room flies away to reveal a set like a Victorian toy theatre.  Drawn figures inhabit the boxes: recognisable as Tenniel’s interpretations of Lewis Carroll characters; the backdrops bring to mind illustrations by the likes of Arthur Rackham and E. Shepherd.  The stage itself is a chess board of black and white squares.  Peter and Alice reminisce, challenging each other’s recollections, and here the play discusses the nature of memory.  “You’re remembering yourself as you are now,” Old Alice chides Peter, “only smaller.”  Memory is coloured by who we are now, what those past events have made us into.

Through their eyes, we meet the Reverend Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll and J M Barrie.  The writers are portrayed as eccentric, enthusiastic coves, driven by loneliness.  Peter and Alice consider their relationships with the authors.  There is no case of molestation but they conclude it was some form of abuse, forcing a child to navigate a relationship for which that child isn’t ready.  A kind of emotional abuse, then.

The characters themselves appear; Peter flies in and Alice steps up from a door in the floor.  They are the fictionalised, immortal versions of the man and woman who grew up in their shadow.  They catalogue their adult counterparts’ flaws and failings with childlike directness.  Real world Peter and Alice have a love/hate relationship on the characters they inspired.

They discuss growing up and growing old.  It is absolutely fitting that two characters from everyone’s childhood expound on subjects that are universal.   And so the play moves from re-enacted biography and particular tragedy to something that has emotional resonance with everyone.

Peter Pan (Olly Alexander) and Alice in Wonderland (Ruby Bentall) portray the familiar figures with an almost inhuman quality – up against the ‘real world’ characters, they are understandably two-dimensional and flat.  Stefano Braschi is dapper and amusing as the upper class twit who struggles to propose to Judi Dench, and Nicholas Farrell and Derek Riddell bring more than eccentricity and creepiness to the writers Carroll and Barrie respectively in their sentimental attachments to their young muses.

Judi Dench is sublime as the acerbic Alice, putting aside her walking stick to become the very young girl again, shedding the authority and cantankerousness of age for the innocence and curiosity of youth. Her reaction to news of losing two sons in the First World War is heart-rending.

Ben Whishaw also excels as the damaged Peter, a sad and fragile figure, whose cares melt away when he relives happy moments from childhood.  But the loss of his parents and brothers has affected him irrevocably.   He’s the kind of man you want to shake one minute and sit him down and give him a hearty meal the next. Whishaw gives a poignant performance, thoroughly credible and endearing.

Childhood, says Alice, “gives us a bank of happy memories” against the sorrows that come when we are old.  If we’re lucky, old girl.

It’s a wistful rather than nostalgic production.  Melancholy runs through it but there is also plenty of humour in the dialogue and some rather lyrical and reflective passages.  It’s a strong contender for Best New Play in the theatre awards of my imagination.

Christopher Oram’s set design is evocative and entirely appropriate.  Michael Grandage directs with restraint, giving the script room to breathe.  There is, among others, a beautiful staged scene with old Alice as young Alice with Dodgson in his dark room, developing a photographic plate, immortalising her.  It encapsulates, defines and terminates their relationship – every part of the play operates on several levels: past and present seen through the prism of our own memory and affection for the literary characters.

We cannot help but be moved by the fate of the real-life Peter and Alice, and we leave the theatre with our own memories and sense of mortality pricked by this absorbing and rewarding piece of theatre.

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Watch your Ms and Qs: Alice Liddell meets Peter Pan (Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw)

 

 

 


Frabjous!

ALICE IN WONDERLAND
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.