If Walt Disney cartooned it to within an inch of its nonsensical life, and Tim Burton steampunked it to pretty much the same effect, “Alice In Wonderland” gets the dark side treatment in Blue Raincoat Theatre Company’s lavishly shadowed production. A broody, moody reimagining where, despite all the darkness, there’s little that’s scary or sinister. One where if Lewis Carroll’s classic suffers some torturous retelling, it also benefits from some wonderfully telling theatricality.
Adapted by Jocelyn Clarke and first performed in 2006, “Alice In Wonderland” sees textual density married to a stunning theatricality that strikes an obvious imbalance. One in which the latter is far more successful, often at the expense of the former. As an older Alice narrates her tale while its being experienced and commented upon by her younger self, the usual events and suspects make their timely appearances. Mad Hatters, White Rabbits and Red Queens all dutifully oblige to ensure Alice's tale rolls out with no real surprises. Eventually narrator, commentator and characters begin to clash and blur as eleventy-twelve things go awry while Alice searches for her latest height adjustment. If the ending plays on the dichotomy of the younger and older Alice, or the writer and their character, it helps add a deeper poignancy to all that was lost in the intervening years, shifting emphasis onto what is rather than what was, or on what might have been merely imagined.
If Clarke’s script wonderfully captures Carroll’s wit and wisdom in places, at others, like its overworked dry history lesson, a little more perspicacious editing wouldn’t have gone amiss. Avril Lahiff’s colour dark costumes, Paul McDonnell’s set design, Joe Hunt’s sound design, and Barry McKinney’s lighting all set the tone for a Wonderland, and an adventure, that’s decidedly gloomy. Resembling Miss Havishams’ basement, or the unconscious perhaps, littered with forgotten ghosts and items of furniture, McDonnell’s meta-theatrical set leaves ample room for the cast’s heavily physicalised performances to move about in. Most of which are conducted in heavy shadow courtesy of McKinney’s split second light design, or shadow design, which might offer a more accurate assessment. A shadowed darkness deepened by Hunt’s dissonant and painfully pervasive sound design, where sinister score and perfectly executed sound effects are delivered with precision. Yet all ultimately overstate their claim, looking like style over substance for offering excessive degrees of darkness, subconscious or otherwise, beyond those which the production needs or seems capable of supporting.
Throughout, director Niall Henry crafts some compositionally captivating and visually stunning moments. Yet his extolling of the virtues of fast pacing might have benefited had he considered some of the vices. Once it gets past its funereal beginnings, unnecessarily hurried delivery often puts pressure on cast, language, and scenes, leading to verbal barrages as text is force fit into a too fast theatricality. Something a hard working cast of John Carty, Brian Devaney, Sean Elliott and Sandra O’Malley are poorly served by, who compensate by delivering some stunningly physical performances. Indeed, much of Carroll’s verbal wit and wisdom slips through the cracks, with frantic pacing often leaving everyone looking frustratingly panicked. An impressive Miriam Needham as the younger Alice battles valiantly against the constraints of being constantly rushed. A point brought painfully home by the deeply pleasurable Mock Turtle. Here the rhythms and nuances, along with the wit and wisdom, of Carroll’s text are wonderfully realised for being allowed to breathe during Mock Turtle’s speech and song, even if it does overstay its welcome. A scene that allows Hilary Bowen-Walsh as the older Alice, as well as Door Mouse and Mock Turtle, to show some real range. Which she seizes with both hands, her superb vocal work and physical articulations restating Bowen-Walsh as a serious young talent, and one definitely to be watched out for in the future.
Like the White Rabbit, “Alice In Wonderland” gets all in a tizzy and often forgets to stop, slow down, or shut up. Resembling an over zealous cyclist, it barely slows to take the bends and curves, and rarely to take in the view, as it whizzes past in the night. Yet when it pauses to catch its breath, allowing its clever theatricality to marry with a clever script whose rhythms it seems to have forgotten about, “Alice In Wonderland” proves to be something memorable. Like its predecessors, “Alice In Wonderland” tries hard to make sense of nonsense, often being far more stimulating when it's happy to be just making nonsense. Yet it still delivers something visually unique in an often powerfully captivating production.
“Alice In Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll, adapted by Jocelyn Clarke and presented by Blue Raincoat Theatre Company, runs at Project Arts Centre until March 16.
For more information, visit Project Arts Centre.