When Jess Peet steps out onto the Lyceum stage as the title character of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which runs at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre until 31 December, she takes on the mantle of one of the most iconic figures of Oxford literature.
Yet the young actress, who is making her professional stage debut in the production, actually went to Cambridge University – where she studied Japanese. Here, she chats about how she came to be an actress, and what performing in such a Christmas show is actually like…
Jess grew up in Bedfordshire, the youngest in a family of four and the only one to work in the arts. There were trips to the local theatre a couple of times a year and, having always loved musicals, she got into dance, drama and music classes at school.
“I always said that I wanted to be an actress,” she says, “but my mum always kept me super grounded and was quite serious about how these classes and clubs were just hobbies; she definitely wanted me to keep all my options open.”
She traces her love of Japan to when she was about 11, when her brother took her to see Spirited Away. “After hearing the Japanese language version I was sold and decided pretty much there and then that I wanted to study Japanese,” she says. “I had a bit of a go at teaching myself, but it’s not an easy language to conquer!”
Having achieved good exam results, she applied to both Oxford or Cambridge to study Japanese and got into the latter. Luckily, as it turned out, as the Cambridge drama scene is rather more vibrant than Oxford’s.
“It was only when I got there that I realised quite how much opportunity there is to do drama – I immediately got stuck into auditions for plays, panto and musicals. I did a lot of drama during my first two years (the third I then went abroad to Japan) and then picked the drama back up when I got back in fourth year.”
Having performed in about 20 plays over her time at Cambridge, and loved it, she applied to study an MA in musical theatre. Unsuccessful in her first attempts, she applied to only one school, the Royal Academy of Music, the second year – before going off to volunteer on rural farms in Japan for six months.
“I found out after a week in Japan that I’d got into RAM,” she adds. “So it was a charmed 6 months, having exciting adventures in Japan whilst looking forward to exciting adventures at home!”
Jess graduated in the summer of 2016, was on the books of Susie Dumbreck’s Edinburgh-based actors agency Infinity Artist Management and found herself up for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at the Lyceum at at only her second audition out of school.
“I was really relaxed about it because I thought I had far too little experience to be in with a shot at it, so I just had fun in the audition. I found out four days later that they wanted to offer me the role of Alice!”
Life in Wonderland
Now, with the show up and running, Jess has discovered the two-show-a-day delights of Christmas show performing. And has had plenty of opportunity to apply her drama school lessons of how to cope with a long run.
Alice reads to the court. Photo: Drew Farrell.
“The show is incredibly good fun to do, and that’s very lucky because it is sometimes tough to put it on twice a day!” she says. “I’m not going to say that I’ve looked forward to every single 10am performance, but I can genuinely say that I’ve enjoyed every show once we’ve started.
“The show is totally daft, and we all have a huge amount of fun on stage. I get to sing, dance and fly around for two hours, whilst making people laugh. As soon as we begin, it only takes a few seconds to remember how lucky I am to have this job.”
The young schools audiences enjoy the show (we have the reviews to prove it: P5 in Wonderland) which provides Jess with an extra boost.
“If I ever feel a bit tired or under-energised, I remember how long I’ve wanted to be doing this work and how lucky I am to be standing on that stage! I hope everyone who comes to see the show enjoys watching it as much as I like doing it.
fresh and interesting
“The evening shows are then a totally different experience; we get a completely different reaction from the adult and family audiences, which keeps the show feeling fresh and interesting. The fact that Anthony [Neilson, the director and adapter] was writing the piece for us and that we were part of the devising process has also left us with a play that we can still constantly change and nuance.
Tam Dean Burn as the Duchess’s Baby. . Photo Drew Farrell
“The cast add new touches to their characters every day, which keeps everyone on their toes. I don’t know exactly what Anthony would think of this – hopefully he’ll come back and give us some more notes next week, to make sure we’re not straying too far from what he wrote!”
Jess thought the show would be demanding, even before the news of 10am Schools shows was announced and the devising process had placed Alice on stage for practically every moment of the show. “Now I’ve experienced this run, I can only imagine that anything I do after this won’t feel like a challenge at all – The idea of doing a show once a day sounds like a serious luxury: Hardly work at all!”
As for drams school lessons about how to cope with the rigours of long runs, Jess is discovering that a monk-like existence is not necessarily what is needed.
“Rather than cutting down on sugar, banning alcohol and setting aside an hour to warm up, I’ve realised it’s actually more sensible to eat and drink nice things that make you feel jolly and get as much sleep as humanly possible.
joy and energy
“The best thing I can give to the show is joy and energy – and if that means allowing for a lot of chocolate and a round of beers or two, so be it!”
As for a Cambridge graduate playing such an Oxford character, Jess says: “Having experienced life in Cambridge, I can imagine the kind of people Alice Liddell would have come into contact with and what stimulating surroundings she would have had.
“I’m not sure how much she would have been allowed into that kind of world, but the atmosphere would have been there. Whether or not the real Alice was allowed to be particularly academic, Carroll has honoured the fictional Alice by writing her as a very bold, intelligent, inquisitive character.
“I really wanted to make sure that my Alice was this same bright and feisty girl, without descending into the sentimental Disney-esque character. I think my Alice wants to be a lawyer when she grows up – she’s on the way already!”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street EH3 9AX. Phone booking: 0131 248 4848
Run: Thursday 1 – Saturday 31 December 2016
Matinees Mon 26 – Sat 31: 2pm; Evenings: Mon 26 – Fri 30: 7pm.
Æ review: ★★★★☆ Wonderful.
Stockbridge Primary P5 reviews: P5 in Wonderland