I think it’s widely accepted that many children are horrid little so-and-so’s aren’t they? Why else would generations of them have been entranced, scared, perplexed and amused by Lewis Carroll’s eternally popular Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass? Most of those characters are right shockers. The Queen of Hearts with a beheading fetish. The Duchess who wants to hit children. The belligerent twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee. And Alice herself; a pompous, self-righteous little prig who talks down to others. What on earth is the appeal?
It must be due to the writing. Lewis Carroll is something of a Jekyll and Hyde character, with his dual personality of the engaging writer of children’s fantasy and as Charles Dodgson, the Reverend intellectual of Christ Church Oxford. He was a pioneer of photography, and there is much debate to this day whether his interest in taking photographs of naked young girls was merely a matter of the time – when such photos were considered the epitome of innocence – or if there was a more devious intent lurking underneath. It’s very hard to come to a conclusion from our 21st century perspective.
Erica Martin has written and directed this fascinating piece for the University of Northampton Third Year Acting & Creative Practice Students. We were met by a white rabbit and taken in a group into the recesses of the theatre – a veritable warren indeed – to enter the world of Club Wonderland. The music is by Josh Bird and is fresh and tuneful and fully deserves a life after this show. With our sophisticated hostess in the shape of Dodo, assisted by more white rabbits than you could shake a stick at, we enjoyed a cabaret show, interrupted by the ominous and troubled presence of The Boss himself, Mr Carroll, who has lost his pen and therefore cannot develop his characters any further; which is why they are all trapped in the club.
All we can do is visit individual vignettes, where we become more acquainted with some of the characters who dwell in the books. We saw the creation of the Jabberwocky. We played Blackjack with the March Hare. We gave roses to the Queen of Hearts in her boudoir. We had card tricks and got drunk with Bill. And we took sides in the fight between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (We were Team Dum). Moving around the hidden back passages of the R&D and discovering little side rooms is a fascinating exercise in intrigue in itself; we had a similar experience a few years ago with their Midsummer Bacchanalia. It really does add an extra dramatic frisson as you wonder where you’ll end up next.
This was a superb ensemble work, with everyone absolutely giving their all to make it work. The only people not to be involved in the ensemble aspect – and I felt rather sorry for then as a result – were the excellent James Grayson as Lewis Carroll, and Kalyn Chesney as Alice. I’ve seen Mr Grayson a few times now and he has the amazing ability to create magic out of any role. As Carroll he was menacing and ominous, yet also aloof and vulnerable as he gave us some insight into Carroll’s Modus Operandi. Ms Chesney’s Alice was clearly very fond of her mentor, which made for a slightly creepy but very effective partnership. Also on duty in the club you could find Freya Mawhinney as a very vivacious and stylish Dodo and Jemma Bentley as both a terrified and terrifying Mouse, both of whom helped play the very enjoyable card game with no rules with us.
In the vignette scenes there was a brilliant performance from Bobbie-Lee Scott as the Queen of Hearts’ tart, anxious to please, scared of upsetting Her Majesty, and superbly interacting with the guests. Joe Conroy was also unnervingly excellent as the Mad March Hare, carrying on multi-layered conversations with himself whilst still hosting a blackjack tournament (must just say one thing, WHAT A CHEAT) and Dean Adams gave a great performance as Bill behind the bar, with a really effective magic trick and a sorrowful tale which required much alcoholic lubrication. Charlie-Dawn Sadler and Rhianne Brown were superb unwilling adversaries as the Tweedle-twins, in a lively scene that used The Walrus and the Carpenter to great effect. Unfortunately I wasn’t quite so excited by Daniel Peace’s scene as the fortune teller. Whether this was because it was the first of the vignettes that we saw, so we were less confident as an audience group of the format, or because the content wasn’t so interesting, I don’t know, because he created a very intriguing character; and certainly knows how to pierce you with a steely gaze, that’s for sure.
Very atmospheric, thought-provoking, and extremely well performed. Congratulations to all!