Alice in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll, adapted by Anthony Neilson

Lyceum Theatre Company

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

From 26 November 2016 to 31 December 2016

Review by Seth Ewin

One shouldn't really be so surprised when an adaptation is so close to the original text, but Lewis Carroll's tale has gone through more changes than Alice does in all manner of media over the last 150 years.

While Neilson does have to make some minor changes, often to allow a smoother staging or narrative exposition, the play sticks to the book's plot and includes many lines and some of the songs.

It makes for great family entertainment, more innocent than a panto and at the same time more challenging with its language. The six-year-old and seven-year-old I went with had a great time, although probably not suitable for anyone much younger.

Carroll's tale has many challenges for the stage and this production uses some simple but imaginative solutions rather than relying too much on technology and also keeping the story in touch with its Victorian setting.

A large, round, revolving platform and large, round screen for projections form the basis of the set. The platform becomes the grassy banks of the Isis, the throne room of the Queen of Hearts (Gabriel Quigley) and, most effectively, as it keeps spinning, the table for the tea party.

Alice (Jess Peet) begins the play growing sleepy with her tutor Charles Dodgson (John Macaulay) rather than her sister. Peet appriopriately is taking her first steps in theatreland and it is a confident debut. Her Alice is delicately spoken, but not shy and able to hold her own against the onslaught of out-of-this-world characters.

There is some very judicious doubling up: Alan Francis as Bill the Lizard and the Duchess, David Carlyle as the Leporidae and the Gryphon, Isobel McArthur as the Dormouse and Mockturtle, Quigley as the Queen and the Duchess's cook, Zoë Hunter as Caterpillar and Fish Footman, Macaulay as King and Frog Footmen and Tam Dean Burn equally crazy as the Hatter and the baby.

The ensemble cast perform many more characters than the ones mentioned above and Neilson has blessed even some quite minor parts with witty lines. I'm thinking particularly of Bill the Lizard's builder patter and Carlyle's Page translating "can't" for the Queen, with perfect delivery from the actors.

The book's most famous scene, the tea party, is central to the play, falling either side of the interval. Making great use of the revolving, tilted, round platform, clothed and covered with all manner of crockery, Burn, Carlyle and McArthur have great fun making mess and reciting Carroll's riddles and nonsense.

Wickedly large heads, well-crafted but dark for the White Rabbit, Fish and Frog Footmen and the Lizard give a sinister Wickerman air to the production. This grotesque menagerie fits with the mostly Victorian feeling of the piece, although the music and the imagery for the rabbit hole do nod to '60s psychedelia.

Having seen a very effective full-on '60s Alice in Wonderland (Byre Theatre, St Andrews 2008), I feel it might have been better to stay more wholly rooted in the Victorian era rather than timidly dipping into another era. Or alternatively have Alice trip right the way down the rabbit hole, swallowing paper mushrooms.

The use of Carroll's poetry in the songs is really good, however at times the music drowns out the cast's singing and you strain to hear the important part: the words.

The play does take a while for the audience to get into it. It certainly helps to know the text, something which my young friends did, but it is also a great introduction and I'm sure will have many children and adults turning the pages of the book.