Adored by generations since its publication in 1865, and reconstituted in multiple forms – theatre, opera, ballet, film and television – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an irresistible mix of escapism and sanctuary. No matter how banal or awful the real world, Lewis Carroll’s tale provides the reassurance of unfettered imagination.
In its warped mirror-image of youthful growing-pains – shape-shifting, meeting the unfamiliar, standing alone – there’s consolation on offer: dreams don’t have to end with childhood, and art can hold time at bay. But when Carroll’s story moves from page to stage, it can end up looking like a fancy-dress party in which everyone’s talk is quaint. Cuts have to be made; much gets lost in translation.
One virtue of Creation Theatre’s online version, Alice: A Virtual Theme Park, is that it acknowledges the difficulties of adapting and the limitations of performing this story. The company, based in Oxford, mounted a promenade production five years ago at St Hugh’s College. (Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, was a Christ Church man.)
But now that clusters of participants at close quarters are forbidden, even outdoors, director and writer Zoe Seaton is offering a digitised dive down the rabbit-hole, at £20 a pop. We take a collective tumble with Alice (played by a nicely wide-eyed Leda Douglas), using Zoom video-conferencing software to access a number of scenelets during her odyssey through Wonderland. These are performed live.
Without wishing to spoil all the family-friendly surprises, there’s a “welcome screen” featuring a simply-animated, automated-sounding version of the Cheshire Cat (“the show will start shortly, or is it longly?”); in the background, fairground music pipes dementedly away. Once you’re inside, you can click on half a dozen sign-posts: Hell’s Kitchen, Tweedles Balancing Act and Caucus Races, to name three.
The first of these finds a wonderfully irate Italian incarnation of the Duchess’ cook (Annabelle Terry) making jam tarts, the “segreto” ingredients being “pepper” and “poo-poo”. Meanwhile, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, purloined from Carroll’s 1871 sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, are played as a Northern moustache-twirling double-act by one effervescent actor (Tom Richardson) communing with a mirror.
In addition, we can see each other, and the actors can address us, so there’s audience participation in the form (for instance) of Joe Wicks-style manoeuvres at the command of the March Hare (Colm Gormley): “First off, it’s synchronised swimming in the pool of tears!”
Just the gist of Carroll’s story remains, however, and a lot of his riddling wordplay has vanished. The playwright Charlotte Keatley has contributed dialogue to the Mad Hatter’s tea-party, but the protracted quibbling in the original can be soporific, and despite Keatley’s tweaking – “What a funny watch!”, say, becomes “What a peculiar clock!” – my inner dormouse yawned again.
Well-played, all in all. Even so, Alice: A Virtual Theme Park isn’t a patch on something you can physically rove around. Once again, I was left craving the re-opening of the playhouses. We don’t need magic to extricate theatreland from a lockdown that now seems arbitrary – we just need resolve at the heart of Government.
Until August 30. Info: creationtheatre.co.uk