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Alice in Wonderland – The New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Reviewer: Jay Nuttall

Writer: Lewis Carroll

Adaptor/Director: Theresa Heskins

The wonderful thing about making theatre for young audiences is that there is a new generation a few years later. It is no surprise that The New Vic has decided to remount their excellent production of Alice in Wonderland staged in 2011-12. Over a decade later it still feels as fresh, madcap and inventive as the first time around.

In this adaptation Alice (Eleanor Fransch) does not fall down a rabbit hole, rather a stage trap door whilst following magician The Great Blanco (Peter Watts) into a theatre. Down and down she falls into the surreal dream-like world that has echoes of the reality she knows. What is so clever about this little twist is that no apology needs to be made for seeing the mechanics of theatricality and illusion – a style Heskins has embraced throughout her time at The New Vic. Young eyes delight in knowing the ‘tricks’ of the trade: the simplicity of Alice’s changing size and flowers changing colour to the debunking of the feared Jabberwock. That said, Heskins does save the secrets of real ‘magic’ as The Great Blanco (transformed into White Rabbit) performs sleight of hand and an impressive vanishing finale trick. At the heart, though, is transparent, see-through-theatre, that is much more satisfying to watch than any duplicity.

One forgets just how odd Carroll’s alternative reality really is. Danielle Bird’s Mad Hatter only scratches the surface in world that is truly phantastic. Talking flora, a rabbit running late, a giant game of chess, a queen intent of beheading anything and everything in her path, a wanton hare inflicting cruelty on a dormouse, a cat that leaves its grin behind and a dragon-like beast called The Jabberwock that rules the land befuddled Carroll’s readers. Heskins does not try to make any sense of it either in her adaptation – the charm being not knowing what or who may appear next.

This is a show with the full bent of The New Vic’s usual creative team in support. Heskins’ adaptation has alacrity and swiftness, but the staging is anything but. This is theatre of the highest standard as set, costume, lighting, sound, movement and score seamlessly gel under Heskins’ direction. Laura Willstead’s chess board set is beautifully transformed with Danielle Beattie’s impressively precise lighting design. Lis Evans’ wonderful costume design is as eccentric as the land they belong in. Alex Day keeps us just on the right side of terror as The Jabberwock approaches and Beverley Norris-Edmunds’ movement direction creates meticulous stage pictures of Alice’s long fall into the unknown, chase sequences and a choreographed train carriage ride. James Atherton’s composition is as busy as the show it supports, impressively played live by a talented cast of actor-musicians.

It is fitting that except for Eleanor Fransch playing Alice each cast member is also classed as chorus. Heskins’ work relies in the power of the ensemble: an actor can play The Red Queen in one scene and the Cheshire cat’s tail in the next. This is complemented by the range of instruments the cast play to augment the score. It is a hard-working show for all involved. Eleanor Fransch is a believable eleven-year-old Alice – bolshy and fierce one minute and a scared little girl the next. There is great support from Victoria Brazier and Matthew Ganley as mother and father, adopted into the story as The White King and Queen. Purvi Parmar has fun threatening decapitation as The Red Queen and Danielle Bird baffles and puzzles Alice with her nonsense and non-sequiturs.

The show may suffer from being a little too surreal in places. Although Heskins mainly keeps it silly for broad appeal, it occasionally slips into confusion, especially Tweedledee and Tweedledum’s sparring that ends the first half. The show is not Disney. Don’t expect a sweet blonde-haired innocent Alice but do expect a terrific production full of talent, weirdness, stagecraft, storytelling and magic.

Runs until 28 January 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Weird Wonderful Wonderland

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The Reviews Hub - North West

The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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