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Alice in Winterland

by on 17 December 2017

Beware the Jabberwock!

Alice in Winterland

by Ciaran McConville adapted from the stories and poems of Lewis Carroll

RTK Productions at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 7th January

Review by Mark Aspen

As a Christmas bonus, two of our younger critics have also offered their thoughts on Alice in Winterland.  You can read reviews, Evie Schaapveld (aged 7) and Millie Stephens (aged 12) at “A Devilish Dormouse, but a Kind Monster ! Alice in Winterland

Mark Aspen writes:

Taking our vorpal swords in hand, my seven-year old companion and I wended our way through the mimsy borogoves to The Rose Theatre, Kingston to see Alice in Winterland. On the way we discussed how Alice’s Wonderland would become Winterland. Her fertile mind foresaw a plethora of possible adaptations, but would the wonder be lost? , we asked ourselves.

Alice in Winterland at the Rose Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet _80A7981C

Not only were our concerns misplaced, we were rewarded with a production that not only keeps the mystery and the mysticism, and the surreal style of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, but one that underlines their spirit of adventure and that decodes some of their messages. Moreover, most of the original familiar characters are there too. Plus there are a few others, penguins for instance … you see this is Winterland.

Director Ciaran McConville’s adaption takes the basis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass and parenthesises them in a World War One packaging. It is 1917, Alice’s father returns home badly injured and, when Alice’s mother is also lost to the war, Alice is to be taken into the guardianship of her overbearing and insensitive Aunt Margaret. This all sounds very mawkish and indeed the sentimental wrapping does have genuine tear-jerking moments, but then … suddenly a White Rabbit appears and steals the watch that her father has just given her. Alice is off, chasing him into Wonderland, and we discover that the theft of the watch is to coerce Alice into helping to rescue Wonderland from a perpetual winter afflicted on it by the Queen of Hearts, who has stopped time at her Birthday. We are in Alice’s magical world, now subjugated as Winterland.

The magic of this world is brought vividly to life in Timothy Bird’s design concept, which makes full use of the wide stage and broad cyclorama at The Rose. Whilst a long grand staircase transverses the set, it is mainly left open for unrestricted stage action. Its spaciousness is enhanced by the lighting and video designs of Tim Mascall and Dan Denton. Projections are very imposing: an enormous Zeppelin figures in the prelude; the Queen’s palace is visually assembled before us.

Alice in Winterland at the Rose Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet _50A9956

It is the unfeeling and tactless Aunt Margaret who in Winterland is transmogrified into the Queen of Hearts. If you thought Aunt Margaret was the hyper-harridan, wait ‘til you see the Queen. Here is the ultimate compulsion: decapitation mania. Susannah van den Berg relishes this role, giving it gold-plated welly. All this energy is complemented with a powerful singing voice. Could so much coloratura ever have been given to a rendition of Happy Birthday to Me ? Priceless!

Van den Berg may have been in danger of stealing the show, were it not for the twenty-six young actors of The Rose Youth Theatre (on Press Night it was the Blue Team) who between them play the majority of the fifty roles called for by the script. Amongst many noteworthy performances are Frankie Oldham as the jumpy White Rabbit (aren’t all rabbits jumpy?) Rhea Norwood as the totally batty March Hare, and Emily Porter who is endearing as Dormouse. Jack Barlett skilfully extracts all the comic potential from his role as the unflappable (well, it is a flightless bird) Dodo. In the eponymous role, the Blue Team fields Madeleine Lynes as Alice, who with confident stage presence brings a well characterised portrayal of the unshakably steadfast Alice and all her mixture of caution, curiosity and courage.

In the same way as the Aunt Margaret – Queen of Hearts conflation, other adults from the fragmenting world of Alice’s real-life household transmute into symbolically significant characters in Alice’s surreal world. The Mad Hatter reflects her father, the Cheshire Cat her mother, and the White Knight the family butler.

Daniel Goode’s depiction of Father, emasculated by shell-shock and battle scarred, is truly moving. Although rightly played by Goode for all its comedy, the tangential moods and crazy japes of the Mad Hatter reveal the sad truth behind his scarred mind, echoing the physical wounds of Father.

Alice in Winterland at the Rose Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet _50A9573

Although Alice’s Mother is killed in the Zeppelin raid, Amanda Gordon, in the Mother–Cheshire Cat pairing, tips the mood more towards the light-hearted comedy of the enigmatic Cat. Gordon’s nimble playing makes the Cheshire Cat seem ubiquitous on the stage. One moment punning (“tab-by or not tabby”), the next she is giving philosophical aphorisms: the magic door is “only as narrow as your mind”.

Tony Timberlake’s expressive White Knight is portrayed as chivalry faded and reverberates in the character of the urbane but impassive Dodgson, the butler in the real-world house. Of course, the polymath Charles Dodgson used the pen-name Lewis Carroll to write the Alice stories. (Homework is to draw parallels.)

If all this seems heavily psychological, well, it is … lightly psychological. But the nature of RTK’s Alice in Winterland is that it can be read at many different levels. That’s why it succeeds as a good family show. Children can enjoy it as a very funny fairy tale, teenagers as a 3D version of the computer fantasy games, whilst their parents can unravel the psychology and unpick its deeper messages.

So where does that leave the Blue Caterpillar? Jonathan Andrew Hume’s lusciously languid lepidopteran pot-head may have become blue as a result of his sad recollections, or of his overuse of the hookah, or possibly Hume’s jazzy voice and husky rendition of the Jabberwocky poem hints at singing the Blues. However, the writhing caterpillar body, created by four unseen actors, remind us of the butterfly inside waiting for the spring. For this is Winterland where all are trapped. Hume’s thwarted Knave, both powerful and powerless under the Queen of Hearts, also gives an air of frustration of a trapped creature. For in Winterland, all are trapped at two minutes to four in a sterile world, awaiting release by Alice.

Nevertheless, Alice in Winterland is packed with action, choreographed by Jamie Neale for movement and Lyndall Grant for fight (commuting for Australia!) but much rests on brilliantly inventive use of puppets. Director of Puppetry Yvonne Stone, and her team of puppeteers integrate fluid use of puppets, many designed by Nick Ash, to feature strongly in the action. We progress in size from the shrunken Alice, ex-“drink me” misadventure, to a charmingly cute talking piglet.

Then comes the Bandersnatch, a snowy emaciated wolf-like creature, taller than the actors. As he leaps onto the stage, most of the children in the audience cower under their seats, until they discover that he is really quite inept, and then they quite warm to the would-be monster when they discover that he is friendless. (Mind you, after he had eaten a few, the rest rather prudently drifted away.) Francis Redfern’s voice of the Bandersnatch comes across as a character chummy but a little dim. The vision of Alice riding away on the back of the Bandersnatch, flying on iridescent wings through the snowstorm, is pure magic.

If you think the Bandersnatch is scary, wait until you see the Jabberwock! It is terrifying! It towers above everything on stage. (Don’t worry, the children get used to it.) Stone’s Jabberwock owes much to John Tenniel’s original illustrations. In Alice in Winterland a flaming eyed palaeontological predator meets Tenniel. So it’s Bandersnatch versus Jabberwock in battle that ensues between all the protagonists. It is impressive.

Eamonn O’Dwyer’s music and lyrics form an atmospheric backdrop to the story, following the mood, be it sad, mystical, lyrical or rush-along exciting. Often though it is metronomic, the tick-tock of the clock, for the symbolism of time is important in this story. Watches feature throughout, but all but Alice’s father’s watch are frozen at two minutes to four.

Another all-pervasive symbolism is that of the game of chess. The pawn, like Alice, may be the smallest piece on the board, but at the end it becomes the most important.

On the way home (avoiding the borogoves) my young expert and I discussed Alice in Winterland. Many of Carroll’s characters are not there (she missed Humpty Dumpty), but fifty is enough. I missed much of Carroll’s rich prose, but its ambience is there. And Alice’s wonderland? The wonder is there, sparkling in Winterland.

Mark Aspen
December 2017

Photography by Mark Douet


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