No bones about it, Laura Wade’s Alice, a modern adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, is a difficult play to stage: it requires two completely separate worlds, over forty characters, and a pig dressed as a baby. Given that all this was performed by a cast of five at the Burton Taylor, it was certainly a daring choice from director Amy Standish. In its contemporary setting, Alice is mourning the death of her older brother Joe when a white rabbit crawls out of the sofa and drags her into a world in which “everyone’s mental”. She is tasked to “go right to the Heart”, and then left to her own devices.
Gobo’s company – despite being fresh out of university (and school!) – excel at all the most difficult bits: they manage to make three people in a collapsing court scene feel like a hundred-strong crowd baying for blood, and are delightfully creative with their presentation of Alice’s conversations with her croquet mallet and ball. When Wade’s script calls for fun, the company are fully involved and giving it their all; when we get to the crux of the matter, however, it’s all too obvious that we’re watching ‘A Very Serious Bit’. Wade’s script, in places, doesn’t make their task easy for them, and the finale in particular spells things out far too clearly. Unfortunately, Standish allows her cast to be taken in by this, and often the necessary honesty is lost under the fervent desire to hammer home the oft-repeated mantra: you can’t let yourself wallow in grief forever.
Adam Elliot gives a superlative performance, easily surmounting the challenge that such a vast array of roles provides. He also, uniquely among the cast, succeeds in playing the script’s abrupt changes in tone with absolute conviction and sincerity. Dean Lamb is also a joy to watch as the luxuriating Cheshire Cat, and exudes boyish charm as a hapless Tweedledee showing off his scooter-based Arabesque. Suzy Nutt, too, plays her languishing Mock Turtle and Roger the croquet-ball hedgehog with great vivacity.
Ultimately, however, the play falls short of its promise due to its eponymous main character. Despite upping Alice’s age from twelve to fifteen in this production, Emmy Owen unfortunately struggles to portray the necessary wide-eyed youthfulness in a convincing way, and we are consequently left cold to her character’s plight. In a play which rests so heavily on the journey of its main character, we cannot afford not to accompany her, and the play’s message – potentially a strong and important one – is sadly lost.
Alice elicits brave performances from a company with a laudable ethos, but ones which never quite find the heart of the matter.
** (2 stars)