Physical theatre set in a building site may not be what you'd associate with Alice Through The Looking Glass, but it really seems to fit this bizarre work. I thought I knew the story, but in fact I knew the characters, the poems, the spin-off evolutionary and socio-political theories, and that it was inspired by a biochemical explanation. It's far more menacing than I'd remembered, and it's also one of those literary sources so rich in familiar lines that I often caught myself thinking "Oh, so that's where that comes from!". The story consists entirely of fantastic ideas which would be impossible to stage, suggesting that director and designer Emily Lim must be almost as stubborn as Alice herself.
Lim has nonetheless met the challenges of staging the play with inventiveness and originality. The set and props are brought alive by the all-purpose chorus, making the scenes appear and disappear almost instantly. The music is perfect, the costumes extraordinary, the choreography slick and polished. In the programme Lim explains that "Carroll's natural landscape of rolling green hills and flowing blue streams has become its very opposite - an industrial, metallic, man-made and electrical wasteland". And indeed the set is a multi-level scaffolding tower and the costumes all different shades of boiler suit. But it works! The hard-hat flowerbed is charming, and works much better than people dressed as flowers would have done. The wheel-barrow boats, guided downstream by the gentle slosh of water poured between buckets was beautiful and very atmospheric. And the acting out of the explanation of the words of Jabberwocky was stylishly done, as were most of the chorus pieces. The path that wraps itself round Alice (who says wryly "How it twists and turns!"), and all the instant reactions / choral speaking pieces were very well executed. Lim obviously understands theatre's role as the great meeting place between solidity and imagination.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee excelled as a demonic music hall double act, tricking their poor oysters with menacing glee; Humpty-Dumpty wrung every laugh from his lines with superb gestures, grimaces and comic delivery. The Royalty were harder to portray. I felt their caricatures seemed less original, and this was perhaps one place where boiler suits did not help their characterisation. Alice herself, played by Victoria Lupton, was superb. I've seen adults try to play children before; Lupton just seemed to lose her sense of age. Her costume and rag-doll act helped, but she got across a childish innocence with such consistency that it didn't matter that she was taller than many of the chorus. Though perhaps she could have done with a little more vulnerability - especially to convince us that she's assailed by loneliness.
The play is long, and because of the rambling nature of Alice's journey, it really needed a tighter pace to stop it straying. I'd like it to have opened on Alice in her armchair, since I couldn't hear the prologue over the music. This isn't a perfect production, but I don't think many student-written premieres make it to the Playhouse, or draw that sort of crowd, so it's certainly an impressive achievement. And since Lim is near the beginning of her career as playwright I hope she'll cannibalise the most successful ideas and take them to bigger stages. Catch them here first!