Alice in Wonderland

Jamie Alexander Wilson
Magic Beans Pantomimes
The Hexagon, Reading

The cast of Alice in Wonderland
Leon Craig (Queen of Hearts)
Steve Hewlett (Tweedle Dum) and Chu Chu

Easter pantomimes are taking the industry by storm and, although 2014's current titles appear somewhat different to the usual stock of the Christmas season, Alice in Wonderland has a history of being presented as a pantomime dating back to 1886.

John Addison's Alice in Wonderland, or, Harlequin, the poor apprentice, the pretty belle, and the fairy ring was written twenty one years after Lewis Carroll published his story of the little girl who falls down a rabbit hole and enters a world inhabited by talking caterpillars, mad hatters and villainous queens, but even in the late nineteenth century pantomime writers were fascinated by the tale's opportunity for spectacle and quest, two staples of the genre.

Magic Beans Pantomimes' first Easter pantomime encapsulates the topsy-turvy world of Carroll's classic and mixes it with shades of Disney's 1951 animation and Tim Burton's live action version to create a re-telling of the tale that will please fans of all three.

Known for their strong media work, Magic Beans Productions makes full use of Simon Cossons's animation skills, with impressive sequences that transport Alice down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland. Not only are the sequences used as backdrops to the action, but the piece also becomes cinematic in nature as Alice herself grows and shrinks on screen, echoing her silverscreen cousin.

The production really kicks off 25 minutes into proceedings with the arrival of Hatter and Cook played by Ant Payne and Robert Pearce, two experienced pantomime performers who warm up the audience and remind them of the show's pantomime status.

Panto staples are peppered throughout the evening's proceedings, with a rendition of "If I were not in Wonderland" effortlessly mixing the strict choreography required with the organised chaos of "The Twelve Days of Christmas". As Pearce's Cook is whacked and walloped, Wilson's rendition of the routine demonstrates the company's passion for the genre as old favourites such as the broken china set appear fresh as ever.

Although star billing is afforded to a lovable Paul Daniels as the King of Hearts, a spritely Debbie McGee as the White Rabbit and the talented ventriloquist Steve Hewlett with his array of puppet friends bringing much merriment every time they appear, it is Leon Craig's cross-dressed Queen of Hearts who brings the house down with his soulful voice and perfect comic timing making the audience gasp in astonishment and boo with delight as he taunts and torments both them and Alice played by the fine voiced Lucy Reed.

Strong voices abound in this production with Jasette Amos (Cheshire Cat) and Laura Jayne Matthewson (Caterpillar / Butterfly) completing the cast and contributing greatly to the comic quota. Although the baking scene does fall flat of a payoff, this character-driven rendition of the tale enables each member of the cast to play to their strengths under the narrative frame of Carroll's Wonderland adventures.

Some trimming would streamline the production and ensure a more even spread between the two acts, which at present run at 80 and 55 minutes respectively. Supported by a team of talented musicians and dancers and dressed in beautiful costumes by James Maciver, Magic Beans Pantomimes has come up with an Easter treat that successfully celebrates both Carroll's literary classic and the art of British pantomime.

After Reading, Alice in Wonderland tours to the Kings Theatre, Southsea (16-17 April) and the Grove Theatre, Dunstable (18-21 April)

Reviewer: Simon Sladen

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