First published in The Times, Tuesday December 6 2016
Anthony Neilson is an inspired choice to create and direct a new version of Lewis Carroll’s dreamlike fantasy. His most celebrated play, The Wonderful World of Dissocia, which depicts a journey through the mind of a woman with a mental illness, is, in outline, a hybrid of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, shot-through with humour but edged in desolation and horror.
His adaptation of Alice doesn’t flinch from the more sinister aspects of Carroll’s picaresque tale while milking the absurdist comedy of the major set-pieces. Jess Peet, in her professional stage debut, captures the heroine’s disarming mix of innocent curiosity and headstrong determination, which culminates in her bad-tempered showdown with the despotic Queen of Hearts (Gabriel Quigley, in truly formidable form).
Pic: Drew Farrell
Peet’s performance, married to Francis O’Connor’s vibrant set and costume designs, hallucinatory video work by Jamie Macdonald and quirky original music by Nick Powell, lends Alice’s meandering journey a certain aesthetic coherence. While the scene-to-scene transitions are smoothly, and sometimes ingeniously, handled, the structure remains conspicuously episodic, with certain scenes coming together more effectively than others.
A major treat is the kitchen scene, featuring a brilliant Alan Francis as the imperious Duchess and Tam Dean Burn, deliciously grotesque as the disembodied head of the Duchess’s pig-baby. Burn also makes for a fine Mad Hatter in an anarchic tea party scene that culminates in cups, teapots and plates tumbling down an oversized table and shooting into the auditorium, much to the delight of the young audience. Zoë Hunter’s performance as the contrary caterpillar is a highlight amongst Alice’s more low-key encounters.
Pic: Drew Farrell
The production could do with losing a couple of extraneous sequences, particularly towards the end when the Mock Turtle (Isobel McArthur) and the Gryphon (David Carlyle) make their second appearance, and the running time is padded out by one or two too many of Powell’s songs. At its best, though, Neilson’s production crackles with offbeat energy, and the perfectly attuned ensemble forges a genuine connection with the audience.