I heard once that the annual Christmas play in the Royal Theatre in Northampton is more entertaining than the traditional panto in the Derngate. So I thought we’d give it a try. This year (I mean last year) it was Alice in Wonderland. So, surrounded by in-laws and nieces we descended the foyer staircase into Wonderland.
They’ve done an excellent job in transporting the usual Royal bar area into a fantasy land where you might meet a white rabbit or a mad hatter, have your photo taken as the Queen of Hearts, and enjoy your interval drinks and ice creams at fancy laid out tables or even reclining in a harem tent (perhaps not quite the traditional Wonderland fantasy, but I’ll go along with it!) The nieces enjoyed their chat with the Mock Turtle and Dodo, and I’ll admit it, so did I. I’m such a groupie.
Anyway there was consternation in the auditorium because they had lost Alice! Whilst they were working out where she might be, we had a choice of costumes for her to wear. I went for the sleazy red dress but the audience was disappointingly predictable in the choice of classic Tenniel blue frock. The Mad Hatter was posing for photos at the front of the stage while the Queen of Hearts was knitting from the Royal Box.
You might by now realise this is not the traditional recounting of the Alice story. It is instead a hugely fun adaptation which takes all the main elements of the original and creates a totally new tale – that of providing amusement for the Queen of Hearts as part of her birthday celebration. All the characters are required to do their turn, including an initially grumpy and unwilling Alice plucked from the auditorium, or else it’s off with their heads. I guess if you were expecting the standard story, you could be a bit disappointed; but the cast and script are so bubbly and entertaining that you shouldn’t feel glum for long.
It’s co-directed by Dani Parr and Laurie Sansom, Northampton’s own Artistic Director. I don’t how the work was shared, but this production has the classic Sansom stamp – a terrific ensemble feel. The actors are so comfortable with each other, interacting seamlessly with each other, tacitly encouraging each other to give of their best. I don’t know how he does it. He must run a great workshop.
Liza Sadovy is the Queen of Hearts, a pushy cow who cheats at croquet, who would frame her own son just for the bloodlust of it, but also has a twinkle in her eye that encouraged me (at least) to vote him guilty – it was the promise of a go in her swimming pool that did it. She’s perfectly cast, has great interaction with the audience and clearly has a wonderful time doing it.
More favoured by Mrs Chrisparkle and the other ladies of our set, was the roguish charm of Mark McGee’s Mad Hatter, who acts as an everyman-type narrator guiding us through the madness, and whose attraction for the Queen is clearly more than you would expect from your average milliner. He commands the stage with a big show number in the court where he dons a gold glittery suit and top hat straight out of A Chorus Line finale. I covet it. I also loved his and the March Hare’s (Ryan Early) surreal Table of Delights, an almost torturous tea-party where Alice constantly misses out on the victuals. Mr Early also gave a very nice turn as a hard-nosed theatrical agent. Good stuff.
Another favourite was Adam Baxter as Little Bill the heroic lizard, whose speech of tragic bravery after he had been shot out of the caravan (don’t ask) had me guffawing embarrassingly loudly. He did all the physical comedy really well. And Ngozi Ugoh as Dodo Sminkypuffs and the Cheshire Cat gives another excellently spirited performance. We all thought she was great and could be Someone To Watch In The Future. But all the cast were highly entertaining and no one gave anything but a great performance.
Where else might you be required to shout “Pig Baby!” at the top of your voice, whilst chucking numerous of the said babies on to the stage, or get hit by stuffed hedgehogs propelled by flamingo croquet mallets. “First address your hedgehog – Hello hedgehog!” is already ensconced as part of the Chrisparkle family repartee. All this plus the unexpected arrival of the jam tarts! It’s full of colour, entertaining props, funny songs, memorable lines and we all loved it from start to finish.