Alice in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll, adapted by Theresa Heskins
New Vic Theatre
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

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Eleanor Fransch as Alice Credit: Andrew Billington
Purvi Parmar as the Red Queen Credit: Andrew Billington
Purvi Parmar, Lucinda Freeburn and Danielle Bird Credit: Andrew Billington

The annual festive show at the New Vic in north Staffordshire is usually something special and the 2022 offering is no exception.

The theatre’s artistic director, Theresa Heskins, has returned to a production she adapted and directed in 2011, Alice in Wonderland, which bears all the hallmarks of a typical New Vic show: committed acting, a slick, inventive presentation and a joyous overall feel.

Heskins’s approach is to deliver a show which is aimed at grown-ups as well as children. Some of the darker elements of the original have not been removed, although younger members of the audience may not see a deeper meaning in the Red Queen’s calling for decapitations, Alice being starved of food and several references to mind-altering drugs.

The songs may not be what children expect: their intricacy means you won’t be humming any of them on your way home.

But, as I wrote when reviewing Beauty and the Beast at the New Vic 12 months ago, the ability of children to engage in a story should never be underestimated. There was plenty to keep youngsters enthralled, not least the magic, courtesy of illusion consultant Darren Lang.

Peter Watts has a background in magic and conjures up all sorts of tricks as both the Great Blanco and the White Rabbit. How he managed to make Alice disappear only for her to emerge on the other side of the auditorium had many in the audience gasping.

Alice in Wonderland is an ensemble show although Watts is one of the standout performers. Another is Eleanor Fransch. It is difficult to believe that she is making her professional debut as Alice after graduating earlier this year. She is totally credible as a young girl who is headstrong and continually asks her parents questions.

When she gets to Wonderland, she is bemused at the outlandish events happening in this new world and stomps around when she declares that the Mad Hatter’s tea party is the worst she’s ever been to.

Danielle Bird catches the eye as the Mad Hatter and Purvi Parmar is a delightful Red Queen who manages to lose her own head towards the end.

Over the years, there have been many interpretations of Alice in Wonderland. In Heskins’s version, Alice comes from the Potteries and her family live on a barge. The 11-and-a-half-year-old girl is captivated by a magician and follows him into a theatre. But she falls through a trapdoor into a strange place inhabited by curious characters.

Costume designer Lis Evans and set designer Laura Willstead have succeeded admirably in creating the characters and their environment. A huge Jabberwock with scary eyes spews out flames, Alice’s barge turns into a street vendor’s barrow, a table is cleverly set for the tea party and a Cheshire cat puppet is controlled by three actors. Those are visual highlights, as is a shrinking and growing Alice.

In 2011, I remarked that a scene involving Tweedledum and Tweedledee went on too long and I had the same feeling with the current production. Otherwise, Heskins’s direction is spot-on. It will cast a spell on many people, large or small.

Reviewer: Steve Orme