Lewis Carroll’s psychedelic children’s classic has been the blueprint for magical escape routes for 120 years. For kids – and any grown-up who has spent 2016 having their last belief in goodness leeched from their souls – Anthony Neilson’s devilishly-inventive Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland invites us to forget reality and follow him down the rabbit hole into a world that hollas the virtues of creativity, imagination and anarchy loud and clear – albeit in nonsensical verse from the disembodied mouth of a cat.
We know the story. One blazingly sunny summer’s day (Neilson makes no allowances for the holiday season here) young Alice finds her dreary lessons interrupted by the sudden appearance of a nervous, tardy white rabbit. Giving into her curiosity, Alice follows him into the quintessential lunacy of a place called Wonderland, populated by mad creatures and madder logic, and no amount of reasoning seems to let her escape.
First congrats need to go to the Alice design team, who have clearly worked their Christmas stockings off on every aspect of the production. The result is barmy brilliance. Designer Francis O’Connor has excelled, shying far enough away from Tenniel’s original illustrations and Disney’s eponymous animated escapade to create a world more in common with the Vaudeville and the Victorian obsession with overindulgence; multicoloured velvet and clashing patterns bursting through starched collars and pinstriped waistcoats. The set is simple and gorgeous, spilling vintage hot air balloons and curlicued signage out from the proscenium into the auditorium. O’Connor’s Wonderland is a world you just can’t keep confined. It’s augmented by the wind-up weirdness of Nick Powell’s sound design, and gorgeous video animation from Jamie Macdonald, used sparingly enough to always come as a delightful surprise.
As for the cast, they seem to be having a whale of a time. Jess Peet is impressive in her first stage role as the titular Alice, barely leaving the stage and constantly extrapolating for the audience. Somehow she makes childlike petulance endearing rather than grating, and her Alice is refreshingly frank, ensuring Carroll’s heroine remains a relatable guide amongst the anarchy of Wonderland’s more boisterous residents.
All of these are played by the irrepressible ensemble, who juggle a hilarious collection of lovable grotesques between them; Carroll’s animals joyfully anthropomorphised in the battiest of ways. Keep an eye out especially for David Carlyle laconic Gryphon, Zoë Hunter’s babbling and breathless Fish (literally out of water) and the Queen of Hearts, played with towering pomposity by Gabe Quigley. Tam Dean Burn is, of course, perfect as the gloriously unpredictable Mad Hatter, bypassing elegant rogue entirely and going straight for gurning lunatic.
Any slight failures in the tale hark back to Carroll’s original. The episodic nature of Wonderland makes it perfect for bedtime reading, but difficult to cram into a well-paced two hours. Even in this cut-down form, it does drag a little. But Neilson’s refusal to transpose some forced narrative on top of the barminess reinforces the madness of Alice’s journey. In case you hadn’t noticed, Wonderland doesn’t play by the rules… maybe we shouldn’t either?
The Lyceum’s Christmas shows have always been a bastion of traditional Christmas-time magic for the Scottish capital, and in David Greig’s first year at the helm, he’s wisely not veered far from this model. But in Alice, there’s an electrifying atmosphere of freedom and gleeful inventiveness that suggests Greig has fully embraced the Christmas production as a chance to show off his newly re-energised Lyceum. The whole team have pulled out all the stops to make Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland both a bold statement of intent and an utterly magical night out.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is on at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh until 31st December 2016. Click here for more details.