sun 21/07/2024

Alice's Adventures Underground, The Vaults | reviews, news & interviews

Alice's Adventures Underground, The Vaults

Alice's Adventures Underground, The Vaults

New subterranean Alice offers an engaging alternative journey

Curiouser and curiouser: Abby Wain's Alice explores her new surroundingsJane Hobson

The 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s seminal novel has inspired a raft of commemorative works, from Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini’s musical to Holland Park opera and Glastonbury’s surrealist haven; Disney’s film sequel arrives next year. Les Enfants Terribles’ contribution takes a literal trip down the rabbit hole, guiding audiences into the depths of Waterloo Vaults.

“Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end,” counselled the King of Hearts, so Anthony Spargo’s adaptation commences with Carroll’s dusty treasure trove of a study. From there, our paths diverge: viewers are divided by the choice of “Eat Me” or “Drink Me”, then further split into groups based on playing card suits. You might visit the caterpillar’s hookah lounge, make jam tarts in the kitchen, or, if enlisted in the guard unit, join the Cheshire Cat in spying on rebels. In this dystopian universe, Alice is trapped behind the looking glass and nonsense is outlawed under the Queen’s reign of terror.

While the division ensures a variety of experiences – and makes for lively post-show discussion – it seems a shame to entirely exclude some areas. Unlike other more freeform immersive productions, there is no individual wandering, with each group closely monitored on their journey through Samuel Wyer’s book-filled corridors. The competing team element does contribute to the courtroom climax, though it’s a payoff in need of further elucidation.

The more prosaic reason for co-directors Oliver Lansley and James Seager’s insistence on military precision is the mind-boggling logistics of a show that plays on a loop multiple times a night, with overlapping casts. This ambition makes production deficiencies forgivable, although Alice’s anarchic spirit is subdued when queuing dominates so heavily. Sound balance also needs addressing – either too quiet or bleeding between rooms. Tireless guides cover lapses with good-natured vamping.

Alice's Adventures Underground, The VaultsIf not a shining example of dramatic momentum, there are plenty of gems: the evocative zoetrope whirling us into Wonderland; a vast, Steampunk tea party (pictured left), where Richard Holt’s Hatter, Caitlin Thorburn’s March Hare and John Leader’s Dormouse torment the beleaguered White Rabbit (Mark Stevenson); Matt Crouziers and John Cockerill’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee bickering while tumbling on wires; Lucy Farrett’s ghostly Alice darting between mirrors, desperately seeking her identity; and Abby Wain’s corporeal version, challenging Alison Fitszjohn’s scarlet despot. Tom Sutcliffe’s Mock Turtle provides the standout segment with his haunting lament (composed by Tomas Gisby), crooned while floating on an ever-filling sea of tears. It’s a beautiful distillation of the melancholy at the root of Carroll’s sublime silliness.

A more consistent tone would lift the production – is this primarily haunted house, museum, revue or theme park? – as would further stimulation and interaction; companies like Punchdrunk have raised the immersive theatre bar. The mode of delivery is a little too conservative to epitomise Carroll’s kaleidoscopic dreamscape, but, if lacking in the requisite six impossible things before breakfast, there’s still plenty here for both children and children at heart.

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