Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – until 31 December 2016
Reviewer: Hugh Simpson
While not specifically Christmassy, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland at Edinburgh’s Lyceum proves an ideal fit for the festive season. Hugely colourful, funny, and fascinating, it is thoroughly involving and a little disorienting.
Adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book often throw in parts of its sequel Through The Looking-Glass, or even more jarring inclusions, but writer and director Anthony Neilson remains largely faithful to the original.
Naturally, a great deal is missed out, but the additions that are made are largely in the same spirit. What is noticeable is that (added slapstick elements like rabbit droppings aside) the biggest laughs come from those parts which are word-for-word Carroll.
This production certainly does justice to the humour of the book. Alice herself, of course, is not particularly amusing, being a character who is struggling to hold on to her identity in a world where meaning seems fluid.
Changed ideas of how children should act, moreover, risk making her look like a pompous, precocious prig. There is also the problem so often inherent in having adult performers play children, which can often lead to something approaching Miranda Richardson’s Queen in Blackadder.
Newcomer Jess Peet does not always avoid these two pitfalls, but does an admirable job, retaining both Alice’s self-possession and her sense of wonder without being either too drippy or too annoying.
The supporting cast take on a variety of roles. Some, such as the Duchess (Alan Francis, showing an uncanny similarity in costume to the Tenniel illustration) remain close to the original, while some stray farther away.
At times the performances become a touch too broad, with an unavoidable feeling of (admittedly extremely talented) actors doing their party pieces, complete with unnecessary funny voices. Presenting a series of comic turns rather than characters only adds to the episodic nature of the narrative – something that fidelity to the source makes unavoidable. It all works best in small doses – as shown by David Carlyle’s Gryphon, which is very funny on first appearance but has far less impact when brought back.
There are some performances that transcend any such worries. Gabriel Quigley’s Queen of Hearts is a compellingly selfish, psychotic creation. Tam Dean Burn’s Mad Hatter, meanwhile, is really rather wonderful. His mastery of portraying dark, id-driven creatures makes him the go-to guy for menace, but he is equally adept at turning it into a darkly joyful, anarchic expression of the imagination that is almost Blakean and that conveys some of the deeper undertow of Carroll, but without being too frightening for a young audience. This gleeful turmoil is best seen at the wonderful conclusion of the first half, and infects the whole cast at a suitably tumultuous curtain call.
Tam Dean Burn, David Carlyle and Jess Peet. Pic Drew Farrell
The influence of Alice on 1960s pop music went far beyond Jefferson Airplane acid trips, with the pastoral whimsy side of English psychedelia heavily indebted to Carroll. This is reflected in some of Nick Powell’s music, with one particular mellotron-tinged introduction sounding for all the world as if it is going to turn into Strawberry Fields. The use of the long-forgotten originals of the poems parodied in the book, however, does strike an odd and unnecessary note.
Francis O’Connor’s bold, candy-coloured design is constantly inventive, once again deriving from the original’s illustrations; there is considerable use of devices such as a large revolving rostrum, and of Jamie Macdonald’s video screen, but none of it seems intrusive.
This balance between technology and old-fashioned theatrical magic is appropriate in a production that similarly achieves a balance between physical and verbal humour, and between what will appeal to both young and old.
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (including one interval)
Recommended for all ages over 5
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street EH3 9AX
Saturday 26 November – Saturday 31 December 2016
Evenings at 7.00 pm, Matinees at 2.00 pm, days vary – for details see https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/alices-adventures-in-wonderland