The myth of Alice has been elevated to such great heights that you'd think it had swallowed a potion labelled 'Drink Me'. Whatever the reality - of dates, times, authorial intent - the children's classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, penned by the Rev. Charles Dodgson (A.K.A. Lewis Carroll), will ostensibly reach its 150th birthday on 4th July, with a busy-beehive of activities to celebrate.
One of these events is a new theatre production performed by pupils from the Magdalen College School (MCS) Theatre Academy, in collaboration with a professional creative team directed by Joanne Pearce, Associate Artist of the RSC. It's part of the MCS Arts Festival, which has firmly established itself as an Oxford summer annual, showcasing ripe and colourful talent across the arts.
Tonight's production took elements from both the Alice books, plus more. It started, cleverly, at Paddington station, whose nascence as the world's first underground railway preceded the birth of the Alice tales by only a few weeks - a connection the author cannot have failed to make as he spun his tale of a little girl falling down a rabbit hole to the centre of the earth.
The layers in Carroll's work - the personal, the logical, and the social-political - were exposed skilfully tonight. We had Alice's intensely personal journey of self-discovery, mathematics disguised as truisms ("nothing will come from nothing"), and song-and-dance reflections on maxims of behaviour and the moral implications of turning back time. Additionally, says the Director's Note, "[o]ur thoughts for Wonderland draw on the Victorian obsession with the imperial project and fascination for the exotic oriental as a symbol of 'otherness'." All pretty full-on, and it left me wondering how much was for the children and how much for the adults. Which, of course, is exactly the same debate that surrounds the book. Clever.
There were plenty of young people in the audience, and they seemed to enjoy it. The main cast all gave strong performances. Of particular note were Rebekah Nash's beautiful characterisation of Alice, all steeped in wonder, casually deconstructing the establishment, and Albert McIntosh's singing as the Hatter. Will Passey and Hugh Tappin's knee-bobbing Lobster Quadrille and preceding dialogue superbly brought out Carroll's deft wordplay, and Georgie Mason danced an enthralling unicorn ballet. The Monstrous Crow from Through the Looking Glass was transformed into a tyrannical professor, played by a commanding Alex Cowan; the delicious irony of watching an Oxford play blow a big, fat raspberry into the face of academia was not lost on me. It was, in fact, quite welcome.
The show was visually stunning. Audio-wise, I flitted slightly between losing clarity of speech (the ladies did better than the gents on this front) and having my eardrums burst (possibly because I was sitting quite close to the speakers). The sound needs some adjusting, but the band were toe-tappingly good, and the set, props and costumes were spectacular, especially given that a large number were destroyed in a fire two weeks before the show. I've never seen a thumb-operated flamingo before, nor a school production with its own milliner, who produced headpieces that should probably have a show of their own. The set was laced with opulence and flecked with whimsy, allowing humans and inanimate objects to meld together, forming memorable tableaux.
As a nostalgic adult with an inner child, this play spoke to me: tonight I didn't come across a land of wonders, but rather a land where one wonders. I had always believed that unicorns were real; now I know they are.The Oxford Playhouse is a venue I know and love; it consistently delivers on quality and hospitality, and has more great things on offer this summer. For the MCS Arts Festival, there are a few more events tomorrow and Saturday, and at the Cowley Road Carnival on Sunday to finish things off.