To get the audience into the right mood, we are ushered through the "looking glass" and walk around a church moat filled with distorting mirrors and strange noises. We arrive in a world full of curious circus performers, and the mood is truly set for a lovingly homage to Lewis Carroll's source material.
Soon enough Alice shows up and we shrink with her into a world of rude rabbits (hares, sorry, my mistake!), caterpillars and silly playing cards. Alice struggles to find her way through Wonderland in search of her name and Laura Wickham (as the only female cast member) fits into her role perfectly. Wickham's clear and strong singing voice is a highlight of her performance.
I remember being awfully frightened by the Queen of Hearts when I was a child – and the Cheshire Cat just wasn't trustworthy, was he? From the outset, there is not much unsettledness in this show, which has a childlike approach to all of these weird characters. They are more like a group of entertainingly deranged friends playing charades. This becomes most evident in the character of the Queen, played confidently by the compelling David Baynes.
Daniel Winder's adaptation, unfortunately, doesn't elevate this production over a mere panto funfair ride. Alice repeatedly exclaims that she doesn't know her name, and as narrative motors go this one's certainly not strong enough to justify two and a half hours of whacky shenanigans. A lot of the adult audience seemed to enjoy themselves, but this is ideally suited for children, for it is them who have to endure adults constantly reprimanding them. In the course of the production Alice too finds herself being called "idle", "wrong", "nothing" and "dull" – and I'm sure some of the kids could relate!
Most of the time directorial choices and the design (Andy Pilbeam-Brown for set and Emma Devonald for costume) are truly inventive, and the cast brave the innumerable character changes and the doubling up admirably. Nick Howard-Brown gives a great Mad Hatter and invites the audience to the famously tea-less tea party.
It would, however, have been a lot more fun if it hadn't outstayed its welcome. A last scene in the church that redeems the lingering production to a degree is beautifully lit and has a wonderful set piece and great closing song. A more intimate evening focusing on creating a meaningful story would probably have highlighted the strengths of this production more. As it is, there are some stretches that feel superfluous or overly long.
Most of it is mildly amusing, and works best when songs are used to illustrate Alice's stage in her personal journey. If you decide to see it, look out for the adorably kooky rendition of the caterpillar song performed by Matt Wilman and his accompanying eggs. Singing eggs, yep!