Alix In Wundergarten

François Pandolfo

The Other Room / difficultstage

Porters, Cardiff

From 01 December 2015 to 19 December 2015

Review by Othniel Smith

The latest from The Other Room—Cardiff’s first purpose-built pub theatre—is its first Christmas show; although it’s not especially festive, and fans of Santa might do well to steer clear, since he comes in for some rough treatment.

Alix in Wundergarten is a co-production with difficultstage, whose previous production, The World Of Work (which I didn’t get to see) was, I believe, an absurdist take on the plight of the resting actor. The performer’s life is also the focus here.

Audience-members are ushered to their seats via the performance area and greeted by the cast. As we settle, still recovering from our embarrassment, we are congratulated on being competition-winners, here to witness a read-though of an adaptation of Alice In Wonderland which is being recorded for radio—the beautifully cluttered studio is meticulously re-created by designer Carl Davies.

Author François Pandolfo, playing the harassed, passive-aggressive director Fabian, introduces us to his cast: Dean Rehman’s Gael (generally mispronounced “Gale”), the intense graduate of the Stella Adler Academy; starry-eyed LIPA alumna Elin-Rose, played by Louisa Marie Lorey; and the youngest member of the team, RADA-trained Toby—Arthur Hughes.

The cast is completed by Richard Elfyn as the special guest—the self-regarding West End veteran Nick Steed, always ready with a starry showbiz anecdote, but not above trying to flog copies of his latest CD to audience-members.

The action of the play does not take us very far into Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, since Fabian’s attempts to make progress are constantly undermined by Nick, who is not shy of offering up ideas of his own in respect both of the text, and the skills of his less experienced fellow performers. Much of the humour comes at his expense; his egotism striking many familiar chords.

There are other interruptions, however, largely in the form of surreal digressions based around the cast-members’ individual neuroses, fantasies and ambitions; often musically-oriented.

The play is frequently very funny, and the performances excellent, director Angharad Lee ensuring that the character interactions are believably naturalistic and apparently improvisatory. Hugh’s disability is often irreverently remarked upon (Nick suggesting that his admission to drama school might have been a box-ticking exercise) and there is much amusing awkwardness.

Inevitably, however, not all of the comedy comes off and, at over 90 minutes, the play seems over-long and inconsistent in tone. The Christmas theme is blatantly shoehorned in; although this does lead to some striking comedic moments.

As the title suggests, the version of the Alice story which starts to emerge from the cast’s messing around is quite different from the original. This suggests that Alix in Wundergarten might have been a sharper and more compact piece about the ways in which boredom, irritation, rivalry and claustrophobia can be spurs to creativity.

Nevertheless, there are more than enough laugh-out-loud moments to make it a worthwhile evening in the theatre; although I suspect that those most entertained will be actors, those who love them, and those who find them deeply annoying.