Alice in Wonderland

Theresa Heskins, based on the books by Lewis Carroll
Northern Stage
Northern Stage, Newcastle

Alice (Alex Tahnee) and the student ensemble Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Alice (Alex Tahnee) falling through the trapdoor Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
The Great Bianco (Chris Price) Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Tweedle Dee (Michael Blair) and (Tweedle Dum (Andrew Bleakly) Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
The Cheshire Cat (Clara Darcy) and Alice (Alex Tahnee) Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

This isn’t Alice in Wonderland, not really; it’s bits of Alice in Wonderland and bits of Through the Looking Glass and bits of Theresa Heskins.

Alice is eleven and a half years old (exactly) and lives on a barge with her family. She’s not very good at school—doesn’t like it, as we see in one Heskins-created scene—and is fond of eating. Mind you, she’s very good at card tricks, particularly “Find the Lady” and makes a bit of money that way, getting lots of people to bet a penny that they can find that elusive female!

One day she sees a magician, the Great Bianco, and follows him into a theatre where she falls through a trapdoor on the stage into…

…into a world which, in the words of the show’s director Mark Calvert, is “big, bold and bonkers,” a world which is a psychedelic kaleidoscope of events and characters, of sights and sounds. We meet the White and Red Queens, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, the Mad March Hare and the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse and the Cheshire Cat, and, of course, the White Rabbit (who bears a striking resemblance to the Great Bianco).

We see white roses being pained red, are confronted by the Jabberwock, a huge dragon-like creature, and are invited to join in a… Well, I’ll not spoil the surprise but both adults and kids alike had a great time joining in!

(I would have too, but the kids around me prevented that by grabbing... Oops! Nearly gave it away!)

We think we know Alice and her Wonderland. We’ve read the books and seen the films; we’re well aware of the sequels and the spin-offs; we know it all. But what Heskins—and Mark Calvert and his creative team—have done is take us back to how Alice felt (and we reacted) that very first time: the wonder, the sense of being swept along by something you don’t understand, the confusion of strange events and even stranger creatures.

(I was reminded—and this is a personal thing, the way my mind works—of the first act of the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia on this same stage theatre ten years ago.)

Here the staging is really impressive. The wall between Stage 1 and Stage 2 is opened up and the show is played in-the-round. There is cabaret-style seating with tables around the stage; there are ramps leading onto the stage from the auditorium; there many working trapdoors on the stage floor; full use is made of theatre’s flying facilities and its lighting.

Technically, it’s a very complex piece and full credit has to go to Rhys Jarman for superb costume and set design, to Colin Grenfell for lighting which has that “wow!” factor and to Nick John Williams’s effective sound design.

The performers have their principal parts to play but also, except for Alice, join the ensemble of six students from Newcastle College in unnamed supporting roles.

Alex Tahnee is a slightly bemused, wide-eyed Alice, everything you would expect of this young heroine (and the reason she can't see the point of a book without pictures is that she's not good at reading), and every single member of the cast—Michael Blair (Tweedle Dee), Andrew Bleakley (Tweedle Dum), Alice Blundell (White Queen), Clara Darcy (Cheshire Cat, Mad March Hare and Alice’s mother), Chris Price (White Rabbit, The Great Blanco, Mad Hatter) and Laura Riseborough (Red Queen and teacher)—really inhabit their very odd characters, achieving that most difficult task for an actor, convincing the audience that these beings from dream / nightmare / imagination are actually real. And they are all musicians and singers and dancers—quadruple not triple threat!

In terms of energy, commitment and skill, much was demanded of the student ensemble and they delivered in full measure.

The movement was fast and furious and very eclectic, ranging from complex interweaving marching to Can-Can, all devised and rehearsed by movement director Martin Hylton and associate movement director Debbie Hilton.

The music is provided by MD and composer Jeremy Bradfield, who also acts. Being probably the tallest man on the stage and playing the largest instrument (double bass), he is quite naturally cast as the Dormouse—for me a small (pun intended) but brilliant idea!

As in last year’s James and the Giant Peach and the previous year’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, director Mark Calvert, this year assisted by JMK Trust resident trainee director Zoe Murtagh, makes full use of his imagination and sensitivity to create a piece which not only entertains immensely but also illuminates and refreshes not one but two favourite classics.

And if that sounds a bit dry and academic, there were two little girls in front of me who were so involved throughout that, in an ecstacy of excitement, they were continually mimicking what was happening on stage, and at the interval another little girl, about 5 or 6 years old at the most, dressed in her Alice dress and apron, started doing the Can-Can as I left to get a drink and was still doing it when I got back 20 minutes later.

I think that says it all!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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