Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at The Lyceum Theatre brings a classic Victorian Story to a classic Victorian theatre for Christmas in Edinburgh this year (which of course is world famous itself for its Georgian and Victorian architecture).
The original story by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) is an adventure into the fantasy world of the absurd that I don’t think anyone has ever really figured out any real meaning to, so against that original story format , director/writer Anthony Neilson and composer Nick Powell were free to re-imagine Lewis Carroll’s fantasy with their own imagination by drawing upon original characters and newly created ones to set their “Wonderland” in. Has it worked? Yes and no is the answer to that one and that answer itself depends on what your own view of “Wonderland” is like. The truth is that there is no one definitive “Wonderland”. This version of the story, although set in the very Victorian world of Alice and based heavily on the original illustrations of artist Sir John Tenniel, is at times never very sure if it is in a “magical wonderland” or a traditional Christmas pantomime. For myself, a closer to the original story is my “Wonderland”, but after a short while this version grew on me just as fondly, and this after all is a production for the whole family, and it was actually nice to have none of the adult innuendo that pantomimes can have.
As soon as you step into the theatre, kites and passenger balloons hanging from high up in the ceiling set the tone for what is to come, and the opening scene of a rather bored Alice being coaxed into reciting her poetry lesson by her tutor Mr Dodgson is a nice touch. Many of our classic characters are here – The White Rabbit, The Dormouse, the hookah pipe smoking Caterpillar, The Hatter, The Duchess, The Mock Turtle, The Gryphon, The Duchess, The Queen of Hearts, The Cheshire Cat and of course Alice.
This is a complex piece of theatre that requires good costumes, many creative sets (and slick and quick changes of them), some good special effects and some very tight choreography and direction, and it ticks all the boxes required. All of this, however, is in the end just settings if the cast do not work well to create this absurd fantasy world, and somehow, despite the at times chaos on stage, everyone works together to give us “Wonderland”.
Many of our cast play multiple characters here, but the one unchanging character is of course Alice, and Jess Peet captures well the naivety of Alice and the never ending questioning that she has of the strange world that she finds herself in. Somehow, Alice has to convey her bewilderment at her unfolding world to an audience and get them to share that with her, and Jess Peet manages to do that wonderfully.
There are many great character roles here, but Tam Dean Burn as The Hatter definitely gets one of the more memorable ones as he gets to enjoy the over the top antics of his character, who here has fallen out with time itself and is doomed to spend forever having tea at tea-time. Gabriel Quigley as the always wanting to chop someone’s head off “Queen of Hearts” is obviously enjoying being an insane stage villain too. Probably closest to a true pantomime dame though is Alan Francis in his role as the Duchess, and he gets some classic pantomime style lines to play with here.
Music wise, elements here reminded me at times of Beatlesque psychedelia and for some reason the Hatter’s song about time reminded me of the late, great Alex Harvey in performance (giving my age away here), but nothing really memorable to be singing when you left the theatre.
Much of our immersion in this version of “Wonderland” is down to designer Francis O’Connor and that visual imagination sets the tone for all of our cast to work in. Just the right design for this production.
At the end of it all, this is a show that you can safely take the whole family too…let the children enjoy perhaps their first encounter with Alice and her absurd and magical world while you revisit some of your favourite characters of your book reading earlier days...or film or cartoons. Alice in Wonderland lends itself to many different story telling formats, but a live stage production is probably one of the more difficult to adapt it to, and they do it well here.
Also a nice touch, and needing a final mention here is the very nice programme produced for this show. Programmes are often overlooked as part of the overall package of a production, but this one has been put together with obvious love and care for the original source material.
Review by Tom King