Review: Alice in Wonderland

It was a wet day in Wonderland at Chester's Grosvenor Park

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Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll’s ever-popular tale, has been brought to life by Chester’s Storyhouse theatre. After a run of indoor dates, the adventure has now moved outdoors for some al fresco entertainment at the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre.

This is an intimate amphitheatre, open to the elements, in which performances take place throughout the summer, come rain or shine. On this matinee performance, the audience experiences weather of polar extremes.

The sun beams down throughout as Alicia (Anna Leong Brophy) sits on the riverbank with her older sister. It is the last day of summer holidays before she commences “big school” and she ponders growing up, torn between wanting to become an adult and remain a child. Alicia portrays the grown-up version of the story’s protagonist while the Alice (Rebecca Birch) we see later represents her younger self.

A white rabbit appears, leading Alicia down a rabbit hole and into the fantasy world known. It is at this point that our actresses change and Alice’s adventure begins in the form of a dream, with Birch’s performance impressively depicting Alice’s steady growth in confidence from scene to scene.

Glyn Maxwell’s adaptation of the source material shows Wonderland as a nightmare version of the school Alice will soon attend and is inhabited by exaggerated versions of the characters she is likely to encounter there.

As well as the likes of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, we see the Caterpillar (Jonathan Dryden Taylor) as her science teacher, the Duchess (Charlotte Gorton) as her PE teacher and three talking flowers – complete with feisty Scouse accents – as the stereotypical bullies she worries about having to face.

Designer Jess Curtis cleverly presents Wonderland on stage using large, colourful 3D letters to spell out the word around its perimeter. The play races through the familiar chapters of the book, introducing characters in quick succession, with many comedic moments along the way.

The first half peaks with the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party scene, a testament to all that is joyous about Carroll’s story

The Cheshire Cat (Caolan McCarthy) retains the actor’s Irish accent but, as the play is being performed in Cheshire, the script ingeniously showcases the character’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the local area and its history. With an audience made up largely of children, the joke falls slightly flat at times, but is nevertheless a nice touch.

The first half peaks with the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party scene, a testament to all that is joyous about Carroll’s story. It is here that the Mad Hatter (Alex Mugnaioni) and the Mad March Hare (Tom Connor), alongside the Dormouse (Baker Mukasa), steal the show. Their pompous, sarcastic manner towards Alice and their interaction with the audience makes for a memorable highlight. The tea party precedes Alice’s trial, by which time she has done much growing, and after which her dream ends.

After an interval filled with ice cream consumption and sunscreen application, the second half begins just before the heavens open. We are now with Alicia, who awakes in her bed, confused by what has happened. Fact and fiction intertwine as she unravels her adventures and re-lives her encounters, including one with Alice, the embodiment of her younger self.

The downpour persists until the end of the performance but the cast valiantly continue despite the elements working against them. The crowd commotion when the weather suddenly changes causes some distraction to events on stage but the cast show no signs of being deterred. Brophy – who features in every scene – perseveres in just a nightgown and is even able to make light of the situation with several ad-libbed acknowledgements of what she’s going through as the rain soaks her to the bone.

Alice in Wonderland is a high quality production that encapsulates the audience within its frantic and vivid surrealist dream with finesse. At times, actors’ voice projections do not manage the play’s transition to an outdoor space, but this a minor flaw. It is greatly compensated by the play’s vivid imagery, sharp direction from Derek Bond and a strong ensemble cast. Storyhouse has ultimately maintained the magic of Carroll’s tale at every turn and strengthened the longevity of his book.

There are performance of Alice in Wonderland between 5 August and 20 August

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