It is hard to think of a more magical setting for a promenade performance of Alice than the glorious gardens of St Hugh’s College, and Creation Theatre’s production makes ingenious use of the possibilities they afford. The audience is led through tunnels of leafy arching trellises to encounter a tea party in a woodland glade, a giant Cheshire cat half-way up the bifurcated trunk of a huge tree, the Queen’s croquet match on a real croquet lawn. From the evening darkness, there are little vignettes of Alice visible with the White Rabbit through a window, or of the White Knight picked out in bright light in the distant shrubbery, riding his (rocking) horse behind the foliage.
It is rare to see a production of Alice in Wonderland which simply follows the story through from beginning to end exactly as written, and this is no exception. Purists beware! If you or your children will be upset by deviation from the standard order of events, or you wish to see Tenniel’s illustrations faithfully reproduced, this show is not for you. That said, if you would enjoy Lewis Carroll’s characters brought vividly to life, in a production which develops the themes and plays with the ideas rather than sticking to the script, you should buy your tickets now for a truly memorable experience. The children in the audience on the first night enjoyed it immensely, loved recognising the characters, and delighted in the playfulness.
In this Creation production, the focus is overtly on Alice’s fear of growing up. She sees how her older sister has lost the naïve playfulness of childhood, and she fears ageing, characterising it as a fearsome Beast, the Jabberwocky, who has stolen or destroyed all the good things of youth. Her adventures in Wonderland are guided by the Ensemble, the three actors who juggle playing all the characters Alice meets on her journey to develop her courage, self-confidence and self-knowledge, to enable her to embrace the advantages of growing older and wiser without losing her sense of wonder. At times this seems a little forced and tendentious, but on the whole it works as a way of restructuring the narrative to present the cream of the Carroll characters and interactions in irrepressible vivacity.
Rachel-Mae Brady is utterly engaging as Alice, her beautiful wide-eyed facial expressions flitting back and forth between fear and thorough delight. Luke Chadwick-Jones’ acrobatics accentuate the energetic pace of the production, as he bounds and somersaults in from the wings and vaults over the scenery (and the audience!) as the White Rabbit. Emma Fenney is a truly horrible big sister to Alice, and, symbolically, also a brilliantly towering blood-red Queen of Hearts who feeds heads to her pet beast, the Jabberwocky. And James Burton brings all his comic genius to bear on delivering other whimsical characters, particularly the Pigeon (with his ingenious umbrella costume) and the charming White Knight.
This production celebrates the 150th anniversary year of the first publication of Alice in Wonderland. It refers to the Victorian era obliquely: stylistically, it resonates with the atmosphere of a Victorian fairground; there is something of the circus in the way the characters bounce on and off the stage, something of the music-hall about their florid delivery; the costumes, set and props are, like steampunk, fashioned from the materials of that era – metal, wicker, wood, leather. The Wonderland and Looking Glass characters are like Victorian mechanical toys, constantly slowing down, like wind-up clockwork running down, then springing back into life, like a jack in the box.
Highest praise must go to the artistic team. The lighting and sound are so significant in this production, they are almost like two additional characters in their own right. The lighting adds a surreal Pixar-like dimension, enhancing the disconcerting aspects of Wonderland, painting tree trunks purple, or illuminating brilliantly pink a chandelier suspended from a branch. The action is set against a constant soundscape, from a quiet background ticking of a clock to the deep screechy electronic roaring of the Jabberwocky, reminiscent of a Dr Who sound effect – indeed, at times the soundtrack gives the impression of a tipsy engineer let loose on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This is not a criticism, I hasten to add – the range of sound from sweet nursery xylophone chimes to raucous sax, and the abrupt changes of tempo are both essential elements in conjuring the world where time expands and contracts like Alice’s body.
While accompanying Alice through the gardens under the brightening stars is the perfect way to see this production, Creation has a variety of interesting alternative wet-weather venues within St Hugh’s, so don’t let fear of poor weather deter you. Do take a warm waterproof coat with you, though, as the cast will persevere outdoors through patchy showers of light rain. The short spell of drizzle last night cast no damper on the audience’s enthusiasm, on an otherwise balmy evening.