Alice in Wonderland is a darned good children’s story but extremely weird at anything beyond the most superficial level. That’s why it has provided rich pickings for adapters, analysts and imaginative stage designers. Psychologists love it, too, the Jungians for its dream-like quality and the Freudians for its rich symbolism, all set against the author’s strong interest in pre-pubescent girls.
Few of the versions or adaptations are more interesting than Laura Wade’s, which opens at a funeral at which the usual embarrassed clichés are repeated ad nauseam while Alice sits immobile and silent on a large chair centre stage. It emerges that the wake is for Alice’s beloved elder brother, killed in a road accident. As the ghastly relatives leave, the White Rabbit leads Alice into the fantasy world which we know through the book and which this production creates so well that when, some two hours later, Alice returns to the ordinary world, its banality is like a dash of cold water in the face.
The rabbit urges Alice to ‘go back to the heart’ and she herself compares her journey through Wonderland to searching for the middle of a maze and to a computer game where she is trying to get to the next level. In the end, she grasps that there is something to be learnt from even the most tragic and traumatic experiences and that the heart for which she has been looking is her own. The corollary of this is that there is something of Wonderland in all of us, a point well made by the actors mingling naturally with the audience as they wait to go into the theatre before the play starts.
The very simple set makes superb use of video backcloths projected onto a screen, in which balconies, hatches and windows open as necessary. AUB shows are always worth seeing for the costumes alone: they are created by the students of costume design, who have let their imaginations run wild for the strange creatures of Wonderland, to superb effect.
Much of the play is very funny, with a stand-out comic performance from Bethany Salt as the Duchess. The croquet game features a hedgehog worried about jeopardising her modelling contract (Phoebe Sharman) and a flamingo with a chiropodist’s appointment (Ellie Selwood), while the Lobster Quadrille is a delight. Niamh-Lily Garvey’s mobile face and Lesley Havekost’s expressive eyes serve them well as Tweedledum and Tweedledee respectively.
The link between the two worlds of Alice is emphasised by everyone, apart from her, playing a mourner at the funeral and at least one Wonderland character: Zachary Trevitt, for example, shows his versatility as Alice’s cousin, then a sensual Cheshire Cat and an arrogant Knave of Hearts. Some of the doubling up is significant: the irascible Queen and Alice’s Mum, seeking an outlet for her grief through anger, are both played by Abii-Jayne Denwood, while trying to placate both characters is Cy Grove as the King and Dad respectively. The mainspring of the action is Alice’s grief for Joe, and it is surely no accident that Pete MacHale, whom we see as Joe in a video, playing rather a sweet birthday song to his sister, also takes the part of the White Rabbit, who starts Alice on her adventures and helps her to make sense of them at the end.
Naturally the whole thing revolves around Alice, who is never off the stage. Sarah Cribdon’s performance in the part is as good as any I have seen on any stage for a long time. She is presumably young enough to remember what it was like to be a stroppy twelve-year-old, but to convey how that person grows and deepens calls for intelligence and skill. Alice realises that her anger at the world is born of a combination of sadness and fear and channels those emotions into the feistiness that she needs to meet the challenges of Wonderland. In short, she is growing up fast, but she is still the child who wants to go home and the audience’s sympathies are fully engaged by her vulnerability. At the end of the play, she can begin to confront her grief for Joe, and the scene where she talks to the White Rabbit about him is deeply moving. If this mature and subtle performance is an accurate reflection of Sarah Cribdon’s gifts, hers is a name we will be hearing again – often.
Future performances: 15 and 16 December at 7.30.