Trinity Lawn’s Alice in Wonderland is not to be confused with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is quite a different story altogether. It is not a straightforward adaptation of either of Carroll’s Alice books, borrowing from both but pitching the heroine as a peculiarly childish sixteen year old making her debut. Tom Elliot’s play centres on Alice Liddell, who is, but also is not, the Alice, and her relationship with Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. Lucinda Smart and George Ferguson carry their tricky roles admirably, though both seem conceived as closer to fictional characters than the real Dodgson and Liddell.
Opening night was unfortunately forced inside due to the weather so the production team must be commended for creating an excellent atmosphere in their second choice of venue, helped no doubt by the wonderful costuming and set dressing one comes to expect from Trinity shows. Perhaps within the more open space of Trinity’s gardens the audience interaction, particularly the Caucus race, will come off better than in the slightly cramped arrangement I found myself in.
Navigating the worlds of the play (Victorian Oxford, Wonderland, and somewhere in between) requires a certain level of background knowledge; if you don’t know that Lewis Carroll was Charles Dodgson’s pseudonym, for example, the first twenty minutes or so will prove difficult to parse. Scenes lifted from the books verbatim often prove the best with a comforting and comic combination of familiarity, fantastic overacting and true Lewis Carroll nonsense. Michael Roderick doesn’t let any fear of bodily harm get in the way of his performance as the Mad Hatter, and Fred Ellis as the March Hare matches him step for step. When set against the deadpan, ahem, snark of Celia Stevenson’s Dormouse, their scenes are a delight to watch.
The trouble is Wonderland sits uneasily alongside a ‘real’ world that is just as hyper-aware: the character of Catherine/Dinah/The Cheshire Cat, played by Sara Ahmed, has little more to do than blazon the word ‘meta’ across everything in sight. Sometimes Oz rather than Wonderland seems to lurk in the play’s construction; there’s a tendency towards direct parallels, so Mr and Mrs Liddell double as the King and Queen of Hearts and so on. In all these doublings, Lucy Rands as the Queen and Alice’s mother shines best and brightest in distinguishing between her roles, at one point segueing beautifully between the mad Queen and the disappointed mother without breaking stride, but few match her proficiency. This, along with every other ironic, knowing twist on Alice the play produces, would be no problem if there wasn’t a suggestion of a more lacklustre meaning behind it all than just being clever. At crucial moments Elliot abandons nonsense in favour of heavy handed morals, to the play’s detriment, and ignores the subtleties of Alice as distinct from Alice Liddell in favour of a tinge of angst.
There are quite a few moments of exquisite storytelling in this production, but ultimately it feels unsure of what story it is telling – despite parroting the line several times, it will not begin at the beginning, go on until the end, then stop.
PHOTO / Alice in Wonderland