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Alice's Adventures Underground

A modern reworking of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, presented by Oxford Theatre Guild
OFS Studio, Tue December 8th - Sat December 12th 2009

December 9, 2009
Given the intimate association of Oxford with Alice, Tuesday night’s decent-sized OFS audience must have come in most cases not to meet but to renew acquaintance with Lewis Carroll’s larger than life characters who move in their anarchic world that’s paradoxically underpinned by a logic of their own making.

The commendably informative programme offers the intriguing vision of a structure being imposed upon the disorder, in that Carroll’s pre-adolescent Alice is here an adolescent who does battle with her teenage angst and teeming imagination; and these are personified by the characters she meets on her underground trip. I assume the preference by joint directors Alice Evans and Samantha Knipe for Carroll’s original title of Adventures Underground rather than the later in Wonderland makes reference to their intention.

Things get off to an attractive start with the 14-strong company performing if not a lobster quadrille then something like it as the audience takes its seats, and then there’s a burst of frantic action and blaze of light as the gaily-costumed components of Alice’s troubled psyche come forward and identify themselves – neurosis, depression and so on. The pace is furious, the sound level high and the cramped OFS space peopled by hurrying bodies – the constant movement, exits and entrances creates a helter-skelter effect.

And this rush and noise continues more or less at the same pitch for the remainder of the short 1 hour 15 mins show (there’s no interval). By the hour mark I was longing for an interval or just for a pause so that Alice might engage one-to-one with the larger-than-life beings whom she meets and who have entered our language and consciousness. Instead, an intermittent and to my mind redundant narrative is handed from actor to actor as Alice and the rest mill about on stage and on the upper levels to side and rear, often declaiming at the top of their voices to no good effect.

The psychological take on the story soon loses its force as it’s hard to distinguish between the various characters by costume or voice. I’m happy to blame myself for not identifying the March Hare until almost the end, but the other characters are mostly dull or anonymous, quirky but to no particular purpose. The Mad Hatter's tea party flits by practically unnoticed. The Queen of Hearts has energy and, appropriately, the voice of a town crier, but she’s soon shot her bolt ad dwindles away as her performance is all on one level.

Alice looks fine with her long tresses and band, the pre-teen’s pinafore dress turned here into rebellious leggings and smock-top, but her dialogue amounts to little more than a spot of rhetoric, and the overriding impression is of blandness. I found myself desperately hoping (in vain) for a guest appearance by Tweedledum and Tweedledee; and where on earth was Humpty Dumpty, the greatest of all Carroll’s creations, that master of crazy logic and blown-up bladder of egotism?

Tuesday’s performance took place pretty much in a laughter-free zone, I’m afraid, and there was a feeling that the frantic jollity on stage was passing a largely unmoved audience by. One final thought – this is no Christmas show; it’s not likely to appeal to many children since simple verbal and visual humour are thin on the ground, and judging by the audience opinion I canvassed after the show, it is likely to struggle to make a positive impact on adults as well.
This production is like the best chocolate, rich, dark, complex and exciting. Seriously. Check it out.
Alice's Adventures Underground was a breathtaking spectacle - a show that takes Caroll's original illogical and often unconnected narrative and leaps with it into the modern, adding layers of meaning and charcterisation on which the audience can feast. I will certainly be going back for more.

Pedants who expect a true rendering of the classic story will indeed be disappointed, but the darker dystopian take, marvellously envisaged by co-directors Alice Evans and Samantha Knipe, will send you home full of adrenaline and with your head spinning.

The extremely physical nature of the production had my heart in my mouth as the beautiful Alice, played by Olivia Jewson, was trustingly lifted and dropped like a rag doll into the ever present circus troupe of her mind. Delightful performances were also put forward by the Mad Hatter and March Hare, played by Harry Forward and Angus Montgomery respectively, whose physical and verbal interactions were deep and utterly convincing. The exquisitely rendered Red Queen (Sara Clements) appealed to the audience, and brought laughs a-plenty. The rest of the 14-strong cast all put forth fabulous and captivating performances and their deep character bonds were open to examination and were not found wanting.

It is not a simple job to bring a story like Alice in Wonderland to the stage, and certainly a small and unique stage such as the OFS. Certainly, a devised piece based on such a classic and well known story is a brave leap, and one which cannot be taken lightly. However, the directors, cast and crew of this show have clearly not taken it lightly, springing with every last 1930s circus performer's breath into picturing the inner workings of an angsty teenager's mind.

Perhaps this show is not for a younger audience, but then - of what appeal would Caroll's original disconnected narrative be either? Truly, this was a phenomenal reworking, and I would personally like to see more of such thought-provoking theatre gracing Oxford's boards.
I thought it was amazing. The imagery was incredible.
I left the OFS studio last night after the opening night of Alice’s Adventures Underground feeling that I was emerging from a little wonderland of my own! This unique devised piece by Oxford Theatre Guild is engaging and entertaining, as it toys mischievously with the deeper themes of Lewis Carroll’s tale.

Here Alice is depicted as a teenager overwhelmed by the pressures of her overprotected life, and her journey underground and the characters she encounters parallel the journey she must make to the depths of her consciousness and the demons that await her there. I got the impression that her anxiety and sorrow was as a result of more than just typical teenage angst, and I was still reflecting on this as I left the theatre – maybe that was the intention.

The piece is refreshingly succinct and unfussy, especially considering the depth of core material, and its dynamism is infectious – you’re dragged into the enjoyable chaos as the characters, here depicted as a circus troupe, pop up in every crevice of the small theatre. Yet, the quirky interaction of the characters and the play’s more emotive, reflective moments provide welcome respite.

The acting and characterisations are excellent throughout, backed up by a set, costumes and make-up that suit the arena and subject matter perfectly. I really would recommend this production. If you arrive with an open mind and a healthy sense of adventure, then you will be bewitched by this wonderfully avant-garde take on an old favourite.
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