DramaFestive 18/19North East & YorkshireReview

Alice in Wonderland – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Writer: Nick Lane

Music/Lyrics: Simon Slater

Director: Paul Robinson

Associate Director/Choreographer: Erin Carter

Designer: Helen Coyston

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

This is a difficult production to assess. On the one hand, anyone expecting to see Alice in Wonderland will be disappointed. The programme’s claim that is “by Lewis Carroll adapted by Nick Lane” is misleading; it’s by Nick Lane based on Lewis Carroll’s characters and ideas. Nor is the replacement narrative particularly coherent or interesting. On the other hand, there are splendid, often very comic turns as the Wonderland/Looking Glass characters, brilliantly and imaginatively costumed (particularly ingenious in that many costumes have to be donned in no time at all). The talented and industrious multi-tasking cast do equally well musically, summoning up accordions, saxophone, clarinet, guitar and double bass, all expertly played. Nick Lane’s script and Paul Robinson’s animated direction involve the youthful audience at the start and leave them literally yelling for more at the finish.

The story is told by four playing cards, probably refugees from Wonderland, who bemoan the fact that 48 of them have gone missing, so they have to take charge of everything. The action begins in Boyes’ store in Scarborough where single mum Alice King is grumbling her way through Christmas shopping when a white rabbit appears. She ends up in Wonderland where everything has changed since her previous visit: the Duchess has usurped the throne and imposed a sort of totalitarian regime, apart from anything else expunging all memory of Christmas. 

The story of Alice’s attempts to free the Wonderlanders, her imprisonment and final triumph is rather confused, but the narrative finally settles to a Wizard of Oz-type realization that home is best and Scarborough is its own Wonderland.  Needless to say, Christmas is restored.

The vivid Wonderland characters owe their impact as much to Helen Coyston’s bizarre and colourful costumes as to Lane and Robinson’s off-the-wall concepts and the actors’ versatility: the spectacular Jubjub Bird, for instance, is a mighty creation. The re-working of the Dodo (Josie Dunn) as an Australian nihilist philosopher and slow-walking champion is inspired. If one or two of the characters don’t come off quite as well – the White Rabbit as a French fashion designer is hard work, though Elliott Rennie brings plenty of panache to the part – imagination is never lacking.

The non-twin Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Dunn and Robert Jackson) are a delight, bickering behind huge moustachios and charging at each other on hobby-horse-styled kiddy scooters. Loren O’Dair’s Duchess is the perfect villain, combining deep wells of malice with childish self-regard. All four actors clock up at least five parts, with a default setting of their Cards personalities, Rennie’s well-intentioned social ineptitude particularly appealing.

Sometimes, notably the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the impossibility of juggling so many parts becomes the story, rather than Alice’s escape from Wonderland. The part of Alice is not particularly well developed until she begins to assume Dorothy-like tendencies in the later stages, but Ebony Jonelle is always intelligently reactive and has a nice line in confused determination.

Simon Slater’s songs are relevant to the text as well as pleasant in themselves. Robinson is never afraid to reference pantomime – and, without prompting, the young audience delivers panto-style participation. Lewis Carroll scholars have good reason to tut, but it’s all great fun.

Runs until December 30, 2018 | Image: Tony Bartholomew

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