Monday 22 July 2013

Theatre Review: Alice in Wonderland, OUDS Summer Tour, Oxford

‘We’re all mad here.’

In Oxford – birthplace of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland – at a matinee on the hottest day of the year The Secret Victorianist and the rest of the small audience were clustered into a fenced-in arena in Christ Church Meadows to be transported into the weird and wonderful world of the first Alice novel (1865). Matt Parvin’s hour-long adaptation took some of the most famous moments from the children’s novel – Alice’s growth spurts and shrinking spells, the tea party, the crazed flamingo-wielding game of croquet – and interweaved these with scenes from Alice’s ‘real’ world of familial problems, and the difficulties of growing up. The ensemble, with the exception of Alice (played by watchable but perhaps at times overly infantile Phoebe Hames), took on a vast array of characters, relying on physical theatre with minimal props and costume changes to guide us through the story.

The Secret Victorianist goes to Alice in Wonderland
The effectiveness, of the script and production, was very uneven. There were some really lovely ideas and good moments – whether using the whole cast to play the Cheshire Cat, allowing him to ‘appear’ and ‘disappear’ and talk as if a ventriloquist’s dummy, or employing two additional actors to give the caterpillar (Richard Hill) extra hands – and the execution of these demonstrated the cohesion and hard work of a fully committed cast. The best scene of the play was undoubtedly the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, where the staging in the round really worked with the constant switching of places and Johnny Purkiss (as the Hatter) and Tom Lambert (the Hare) put in great performances.

Other ideas however were not as well thought-through. Director Josie Mitchell has spoken about her improvisational methods in the rehearsal room and I couldn't help but get the feeling throughout that I was watching Alice being workshopped, rather than performed. Alice obeyed a sign reading ‘eat me’ and became large, hoisted on the shoulders of the other actors, her arms elongated by theirs. We smiled and nodded but asked ‘then what?’ as we hurriedly skipped on to the next episode, the conceit abandoned. While Alice mentions later that she is only 3 inches tall, it is unclear when she was shrunk again and the playwright and director never bothered to return her to her proper size for the play’s conclusion.

Flyer for Alice in Wonderland
On a language level there were also disappointments. Parvin’s text was simply at its best when it quoted verbatim from Carroll and the innovative external narrative was confused and unclear as a plot, and clunky in its expression. There were just too many ideas in the melting pot – political speechifying, social commentary on the conditions faced by child factory workers, medical intrusion as Alice approached puberty, and bizarre relationships between the heroine and her uncle and father. One might have been interesting, but as it was the audience sighed with relief each time we returned to caucus races and the odd beheading.

While the play captured the mad-cap spirit of the novel, and the intimacy of the setting had some benefits (making us feel trapped in a strange world and allowing the cast to appear from all directions and play with surprising sound effects), what was lost was the sense of adventure and discovery which a more visually stimulating production might have provided. While the production is continuing its run in London and Edinburgh, much more could have been made of the Oxford connection and glorious outdoor setting and, when extra costume was donned on top of the ubiquitous white tops and leggings, this seemed to help the actors with characterisation no end.

All in all this was a production of a nineteenth-century classic which left the audience debating the desirability of modern theatrical conventions. Nice ideas and an enthusiastic cast, but ultimately it is the continued appeal of Carroll’s story, however mutilated, which saves the play. 

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Alice in Wonderland Production Website: Link

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