Adapted from the Lewis Carol novel by Poppy Burton-Morgan
I thought I had seen quite enough Alices in Wonderland or through the Looking Glass for one lifetime and only reluctantly attended this one—but I had liked the company’s work before and at just under one hour in length I could fit it in before going on to another show. I am so glad I did so. It is a delight.
This is not a straight attempt to dramatise either of the Alice books but an imaginative presentation of an ageing Alice Hargreaves (nee Liddell), remembering some of the incidents and characters that Lewis Carroll had invented to entertain her as a child. But that is not all, for it is set in the cellar of her house at Cuffnells during in air raid in 1915, specifically the night her eldest son Jack was killed on the Western Front, and her thoughts of Jack make him part of bringing Charles Dodgson’s inventions to life.
They do so with simple but very effective puppetry, animating whatever lies around them among the things stored in the cellar to create immediately recognizable creatures. A lace-edged cloth and a baby’s nightdress deftly turn into the White Rabbit, a stack of books the pipe-smoking Caterpillar, a fox tippet and a purse a grinning Cheshire cat, a rugby ball the March Hare, a ball of wool the Dormouse and cloth and a broken doll the size-changing Alice.
I don’t know how heavy air raids were where the Hargreaves lived in the New Forest. Perhaps adaptor / director Poppy Burton-Morgan is taking a little artistic licence to follow the air-raid warning with the sound of bombs exploding and anti-aircraft artillery, but these are not just the sounds of a home front Zeppelin raid, they are also the big artillery and smaller fire of the trenches.
As in Wonderland, grey-haired Alice still has a cat called Dinah; she calls her as she comes down to the cellar so that is a reminder of the opening of the stories, and finding a copy of the book there provides another lead. Then discovering the baby wear makes her think her eldest son Alan.
He too, in the trenches may be thinking of her for now he is with her. Is he blocking out war with Carroll’s reversed logic? Alan is both with his mother and in Flanders. As he prepares his gas mask to face a gas attack, he is simultaneously arranging it with its tubing and his metal helmet to become the Mock Turtle.
I saw this with an audience largely of mothers and young children. They were perhaps too young to have understood the sad parallel of loss but those who knew the stories were obviously delighted to recognize each character as it was brought to life and even they youngest seemed engrossed by the performance, actor-puppeteers Mandy Travis and Jack Parker deliver it so expertly.
However, this is in essence a work for grown-ups and older children who will see its full significance, those far from innocent exaggerations of human foibles seen in Carroll’s fantastications matched with what becomes almost a threnody for the loss of a generation of Europe’s youth. When Parker’s Alan leaves his mother to reappear behind the barbed wire of the battlefield, his spirit comes back bearing a fluttering telegram that is drawn, moth-like, to the lamplight before settling unnoticed on her shoulder.
We know what it will tell her when the real one arrives and it becomes almost unbearably moving. This would not be the last one: the Hargreaves lost two of their three sons in that First War, but, touching though it is as a metaphor for loss, it leaves you more with delight than sadness.
Along with Alice’s memories of her own and her son’s childhood, you could read this too as a dying soldier’s last memories of home and happy days or even a mind amid craziness of warfare escaping into a matching madness.
Jack Parker’s Captain Hargreaves is the perfect posh-voiced son and soldier and Mandy Travis just amazing as Alice with a vocal range that is astounding. As actors and puppeteers, they creativity is impressive and made the more effective by the playfulness with which they present it.
Poppy Burton-Morgan has made something very special in this Alice, brought together with the help of William Reynolds’ design and lighting, the puppetry design of Yvonne Stone and a carefully matched sound score and some lovely music by Filipe Gomes.
First seen as part of the Suspense London Puppetry Festival in 2013, this one-off performance is part of an autumn tour of Alice and it will also be touring next spring.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton