“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then”
Iris Theatre’s 2013 summer season got off to a cracking start with a viscerally imaginative take on Julius Caesar and much of the same company has stayed put to present the more family-friendly, but no less inventive semi-musical take on Alice in Wonderland. The audience fall into the rabbit hole as soon as we arrive, ending up in a Victorian fairground where a number of sideshow acts entertain the crowd until a young lady comes tumbling through behind us and the play begins. That girl is of course Alice but she has lost her identity and in order to try and reclaim it, she has to journey deep into Wonderland, meeting all kinds of strange creatures and fulfilling all manner of tasks to try and help her on her way.
The varied grounds of St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden serve as an excellent starting point for director Andrew Lynford to let his imagination run wild with Andy Pilbeam-Brown’s set design and Emma Devonald’s costumes evoking a near-Gothic Victoriana which feels wonderfully lively. And key to this is the frequent encouragement of audience participation – so many of the younger members of the audience (and indeed some of the older) got to take part, whether in the dizzying madness of the Caucus race, the hilarious antics of a game of croquet or the simply delightful Mad Hatter’s tea party with its over-friendly dormouse. It is utterly charming and never loses sight of exactly who it is trying to entertain.
The flipside to this is that it does always possess a dramatic sharpness. The playing style occasionally veers to the overly broad, Candida Caldicot’s songs meander a little instead of advancing the story and some scenes – the Mock Turtle’s for instance – lack a real sense of purpose. But the sheer enthusiasm of a cast of seven throwing themselves whole-heartedly into this most whimsical of worlds is near-impossible to resist. From an extraordinary turn as Brutus, it is refreshing indeed to see David Baynes’ anarchic March Hare and screechily camp Queen of Hearts, likewise Nick Howard-Brown’s Mad Hatter finds profundity as well as playfulness.
And at the heart of it all is Laura Wickham’s Alice – her innocent wonderment plays as a great foil to the madhouse in which she finds herself, but also grounds the more poignant aspects to her journey – the search for identity, what it means to know oneself, how the darker side of life cannot be avoided but can be dealt with – in a place of genuine truth. And as with Julius Caesar, the production transcends itself in its final moments, set inside the church, with a simply gorgeous tableau that is infinitely moving.
The performance I attended was pleasingly full with children and they genuinely seemed to love it, and I love that I got to witness this. Too often (and more so than usual), press nights for family shows present a stolid audience who don’t, or won’t, respond in the way that the production deserves and that robs us all of an additional pleasure which really helps the show to fly so now is the ideal time to go. There’s only a few days left to fall down this particular rabbit hole though so hurry hurry, follow that white rabbit.