First published in The Times, Tuesday December 5 2017
In true Wonderland style, the sign above the bar at Northern Stage reads: “We’re all mad here!” Yet the young audience members who have gone to the trouble of dressing up in spotless pinafores and Alice bands look out of step with what’s happening onstage. This festive show may share its title with the enduring classic but its raucous tone is a world away from Lewis Carroll.
Mark Calvert, the director, and the writer Theresa Haskins have a long track record of monkeying around with beloved tales. Their irreverent version of The Wizard of Oz delivered Dorothy and Toto over the rainbow in a fairground car. Last year’s production of James and the Giant Peach took its visual and musical cues from the New York of the swing era.
Pic: Pamela Raith
The pair’s take on Alice similarly risks the wrath of purists by setting the action in a cabaret-style atmosphere, with lamp-lit tables stationed around a large central stage and featuring a live soundtrack, composed by Jeremy Bradfield, that ranges from unplugged to electric. Alice, played by Alex Tahnee in braids and heavy boots, is a free spirit of seafaring stock, who falls foul of a pitiless teacher (Laura Riseborough) when she is forced to attend school. An encounter with the Great Blanco (Chris Price), a magician who makes off with her precious playing cards, precipitates her plunge down the rabbit hole.
If such departures appear radical, Haskins’s script does retain the essence of Carroll’s original, with Tahnee’s Alice the fixed character, keeping her head while all around her are losing theirs, and facing down a barrage of inanity and bizarre logic. The sumptuous costumes, designed by Rhys Jarman, have more in common with Toulouse-Lautrec’s images of the Moulin Rouge than John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations, featuring plenty of corsets and petticoats, and there are some ingenious realisations of the author’s bestial creations, including the Jabberwock, a cloth-and-stick puppet with burning eyes, and the Cheshire Cat, whose eyes and grin are stamped on paper parasols.
Pic: Pamela Raith
The human performers are excellent, too, not least Price, doubling as the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter, and Riseborough as the Red Queen, while Tahnee makes for a hearty heroine. At times, the stylish visuals and slick, energetic choreography from Martin and Debbie Hylton does rather threaten to overwhelm the narrative, but it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer creative verve of the whole package.