My third major classic of children’s literature in as many days took me down the rabbit hole with Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. This show is being freestreamed by Chickenshed, the north London youth-oriented community theatre and is the latest in a long line of releases from them this year. And it’s worth noting that they have been doing so for free throughout; donations are, of course, more than welcome. Most of Chickenshed’s shows have focused on some hot topics and burning issues so it is nice to see them finishing this year by letting their hair down and having an onstage party.
Unlike many other versions of this story, which tend to incorporate elements of Alice Through The Looking Glass, this adaptation keeps pretty much to the order of original events, though a scene in the White Rabbit’s house where Alice grows to mammoth proportions was unaccountably absent. The script/music is by a whole team; apart from Lewis Carroll there are no less than eight other people credited (so I hope they will forgive me if I neglect to list them). And this is pretty much in line with Chickenshed’s general modus operandi where scores of people both on and off stage are responsible for creating the final product; the cast alone must have run into treble figures.
Nearly every time I have watched one of their shows this year, I have marvelled at how they manage to choreograph the hordes of participants and find a space for everyone. The tolerance levels of the directors – in this case three of them, or five with the two musical directors – must be phenomenal. The other notable thing about the organisation of this show is that British Sign Language is entirely integrated into the action either with the actors doing their own or via a number of shadow performers who “translate”. That this is in no way a distraction is a testament again to organisation but also to Carroll’s zany world where anything goes.
I’m sure the story is well known enough not to need repeating as Alice wanders from strange encounter to even stranger encounter to the downright bizarre and anybody watching will no doubt have their favourite sections. I thought the Caterpillar was particularly well done with about ten performers each playing a segment and working in harmony to create the whole and the scene with the Mock Turtle (Greg Williams) actually managed to wring some humour out of a scene that on the page can be a little tedious.
The bigger set pieces such as the Duchess’ kitchen and the mad tea party fizzed with energy. The latter was particularly noteworthy for the manic energy of Peter Dowse and Mark Lees as the Hatter and the March Hare respectively. Often played as slightly eccentric their characters were definitely certifiable and portraying them in a monochrome palette was delightfully different. Their scene also contained one of the big production number songs “Wonderland” which was clearly an homage to Madness (who else?) and which closed the first act.
The second half is dominated by Joseph Morton’s Queen of Hearts – not quite a traditional pantomime dame but clearly another character touched by insanity. With her striking features, her diminutive king by her side and her total disregard for legal procedure she might well be a character out of Kafka rather than Carroll (some rather pleasing alliteration, there) and brings proceedings to a rousing close with a definite nod to another king – Elvis. Through all this hurricane of activity, the (relatively) calm eye of the storm is the Alice of Belinda McGuirk. I felt there was a need to make the character a little more lost at sea and perplexed by the events she is witnessing but, of course, in a dream all things are deemed possible so maybe that was a deliberate choice. I was glad to see, however, that the often winsome figure with which we are presented has been ditched for a more forthright characterisation.
The settings are rather more elaborate than many of the company’s shows with Keith Dunne providing a split level stage so that we do see Alice go underground. It also provides a platform for Dave Carey and his band of musicians to do their stuff. The fantastical costumes of Graham Hollick must have provided a real challenge – especially with such a huge cast – and I hope for costume supervisor Emma Robertson’s sake that the cast were well trained enough to hang everything up afterwards.
Although I’m sure it has been a huge disappointment to many of the young people of Chickenshed that they have been unable to get much of their live work on stage this year , they have at least kept the flag flying throughout the pandemic with videos that show the quality of their work and which has, hopefully, brought them to the attention of a wider audience. They are a rather unique outfit and I look forward to what they come up with in 2021 and beyond.