The Dalston-based Arcola Theatre’s underground performance space is an apt area to stage Alice in Wonderland – walking down the stairs into a dark room you cannot but help make comparisons with dropping down a rabbit hole. Despite the theatre being on the cosy side of cramped and swelteringly hot, OUDS managed to pull off a captivating performance, brilliantly directed.
Much is made of physical theatre’s ‘intimacy’ and it almost seems a cliché to write of intimate performances, but it is fair to say that this was an all-encompassing show; the actors run around the audience, hiding behind seats and popping out from unexpected places. The effect is visually stimulating, strengthened as it was by the physical interaction between the actors. For example, the Caterpillar’s many legs were portrayed by 3 actors standing behind each other and using their hands in synchrony (the Caterpillar, played by Richard Hill, was fabulously ‘queer’ as he turned about the stage fluidly).
The chaos of Wonderland too is perfectly actualised during the Cheshire cat scene: Alice is surrounded by different members of the cast, their heads snapping up and down to represent the reappearing and disappearing of the cat, their voices eerily echoing each other.
The theme of madness is strongly upheld by juxtaposing sober scenes alongside the anarchic ones. This compared Alice’s ‘reality’ with the world of Wonderland and blurred the dividing line. (For example, the Cheshire cat scene is placed next to the moving moment when Alice’s uncle admits in tears “I am not truthful”.)
This is also the case when the Queen of Hearts’s scene dissolves in chaos and is replaced by Alice and her mother, a change signalled by the lighting – from warm to something colder and sharper as her mother bides her, “You must be truthful…that is life’s duty.” This prevents the play from being merely an explosion of nonsense – it was tightly held together and contained several great performances, including Vanessa Goulding as the Queen of Hearts and Johnny Purkiss, who manages to show both vulnerability as Alice’s uncle and then becomes entirely unhinged as the Mad Hatter.
Alice is wonderfully foot-stompingly petulant, but this is all – her characterisation is otherwise a little bland, though arguably this gives room for the more colourful performances and prevents distraction from the themes.
OUDS is taking this to Edinburgh Fringe next, and it can be recommended without reservation as not only an entertaining, amusing performance, but a show which will leave you feeling stirred and thoughtful.
Alice in Wonderland will be staged at C Nova, in Edinburgh, from 31st July to 26th August.