Alice

Angela Truby
Sustained Magic
Derby Theatre Studio
(2011)

Alice publicity image

While much has been written about financial issues and various upheavals at Derby Theatre, little has been documented about the venue's studio. When the University of Derby first took over the running of the former Playhouse, the studio was often unavailable for hire by small-scale professional and amateur companies alike.

Now the studio is back in business, welcoming the sort of experimental and groundbreaking theatre which wouldn't sit as comfortably in any of the other venues around the city.

The perfect example is Sustained Magic's new production. Alice is billed as a world premiere; some people might think it's audacious to describe it in such a way and first public performance might be more appropriate.

Alice is the story of Alice Wheeldon, a 51-year-old housewife from Derby who became a suffragette and shielded conscientious objectors. She fought valiantly for women's rights - but in 1917, when the country was at war, the establishment didn't want political change and took a dim view of her activities.

MI5 infiltrated her movement because she was regarded as a "dangerous subversive". Alice was accused of plotting to murder Prime Minister David Lloyd George. She was held in Derby's Guildhall prison before being tried at the Old Bailey.

While Alice Wheeldon's tale is a fascinating look at how a working-class woman can get under the establishment's skin, Angela Truby's script has the aura of a work in progress which will improve the more it's performed. The dialogue keeps your attention, but there's no outstanding moment of pathos which takes your breath away or keeps you on the edge of your seat.

There are countless references to Derby and its suburbs which the audience can recognise, but the script occasionally lacks authenticity; words such as "fantastic" and "uptight" sound too modern for this period piece.

The charm of Alice is largely down to Beki Mahon who portrays Mrs Wheeldon as a totally believable character, a loving mother who stands up for what she believes in but she's gullible enough to be hoodwinked by government agents.

Much of the story is told through Alice's discussions with her lawyer Saiyid Riza. Pardip Kumar initially appears hesitant as the man who doesn't understand the British class system, let alone Derbyshire sayings - but the uncertainty goes on for so long that you suspect he's not totally confident with his lines.

Ed Kennedy is General Sir Frederick Smith, the Attorney General who's prosecuting Alice's case - but he rarely looks comfortable as the immensely powerful figure who wants to maintain the status quo whatever the consequences.

It's left to Beki Mahon and Rhiannon Prytherch as Alice's daughter Winnie Mason to come up with some of the most tender scenes as they outline the almost insurmountable problems faced by ordinary women striving for extraordinary results in a male-dominated world.

Director Matt Green opts for a simple staging, with the actors wearing modern white tops and black trousers and only chairs and a rug for props. It's a stark setting; costumes suggestive of the period might have helped to create more of an atmosphere and provided a visual stimulus.

As a Derby resident, I was hoping Alice would be a little gem that could go on to great things in a similar way to Katori Hall's The Mountaintop which has just finished a run at the city's Guildhall Theatre. With more suspense and a dramatic climax, Alice could gain similar accolades.

"Alice" runs until April 16th

Reviewer: Steve Orme