Guest Review by Holly O’Mahony, co-written with Daniel Perks.
I love site-specific, promenade theatre – particularly when it’s based on a classic story I’m already familiar with. Throw in some freedom to make decisions on what you see, and it’s all the more exciting. So I was thrilled to get to see the highly acclaimed production of Alice’s Adventures Underground by Les Enfants Terribles, which is now well into its second run following a sell-out stint in 2015.
The production is spread across the many underground tunnels at The Vaults and each new room or holding bay we enter is cluttered with delightful little artefacts, Victorian memorabilia, wonky towers of books or garishly patterned wallpaper. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
To begin, our group of 50-odd must make an important decision… Eat Me or Drink Me. Unbeknown to us at this point, our decision here will impact our entire experience tonight.
Once the decision is made, we are sorted again, this time into playing card suits, essentially slicing our initial group into four smaller sets, with efforts being made by the card dealer to split up pairs in order to allow individuals to enjoy the experience on a personal level. Daniel and I are split up to explore the mystical world solo.
All the characters from the Alice series are in there, most operating in their own rooms and dictating their own scenes. To name but a few, I see Humpty Dumpty up on his wall, the grouchy Duchess in her kitchen, the Cheshire Cat grinning from the shadows and the Mock Turtle sing a woeful song. The Queen of Hearts barks about her tarts through the speakers when it is time for us to move on.
What a smooth operation Les Enfants run! We barely catch a whiff of another group throughout the experience, until we all meet up for the final scenes. The focus here is much more on the set design and visual aesthetics of the experience – which receive full marks – than the acting.
All the actors play two dimensional caricatures of those in Carroll’s stories. Characters like the Duchess are more gentle, diluted versions of their book counterparts, and scenes which veer away from Carroll’s clever text come across as a little kooky and lacking in purpose.
Daniel and I exchange notes when we are reunited again – the notion that different routes provide different experiences is enough to make you want to come back. That’s part of the magic of immersive shows like Alice’s Adventures Underground – companies like Les Enfants Terribles or Punchdrunk bring their productions to big cities, where the crowds continue to flock night after night for a bizarre, unique and surreal experience.
Like Punchdrunk‘s Sleep No More, which is staged over six stories of three adjoining warehouses in New York, or the more rustic, landscape work of WildWorks theatre down in Cornwall, Alice’s Adventures Underground is an unforgettable immersive production. Once you’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole and stumbled out the other side, you find yourself chatting about the whole experience to anyone who’ll listen.
Holly is new to Alice’s Adventures Underground, but like Alice, I am an old hand at this. Unlike Alice, I don’t feel trapped by the curiosities that it offers, but enticed back again and again. Of the multitude of possible routes to take, I am now left with only one yet to explore… the one that Holly ends up on in this wonderful tumble through the underworld of weird and wacky beauty.
I see most of what Holly sees (an insight that we must have made the same decision at some points in the journey) but from a different perspective. I gaze through looking glasses, wear badges with pride to serve Wonderland royalty and flush out the mole set on disrupting our precious Queen’s plans. Holly does some of this, but she is caught up as more of an observer.
As a personal highlight, after so many journeys back and forth through this hallucinogenic maze, I finally get the pleasure of the Mock Turtle‘s company. This is a rare moment to pause, as we hide from those that may wish to do us harm. We sit in a dank, dingy, water-filled cavern as the moon remenisces with upper class aplomb and the turtle laments. The rains fall in the dim light and Alexander Wolfe’s composition contrasts the madness of the evening with an emotional introspective melody. I sit back, close my eyes and revel in its pathetic beauty.
Who stole the tarts? Who painted the roses red? Who is hellbent on toppling the Queen on the Frabjous day? We find out in the final scene, a court case with transformative results. I sit in a different section to Holly – we are not to mix at this point, at risk of contamination from a lesser suit. I look round and think about the times I played other parts, ran through different corridors of Alice’s Adventures Underground, or kept different secrets in this mysteriously magical world. I already know I need to come back that final time, complete my journey and unlock the final pieces of the puzzle.
For a previous review of Alice’s Adventures Underground by Daniel Perks, please see the accompanying article.
Director: Oliver Lansley; James Seager
Producer: Emma Brünjes for ebp; Oliver Lansley and James Seager for Les Enfants Terribles
Writer: Anthony Spargo
Composer: Tomas Gisby; Alexander Wolfe (Mock Turtle)
Design: Samuel Wyer; Max Humphries (puppet); Mike Gunning (lighting); Nina Dunn (video); Tomas Gisby (sound); Jessica Blackman (make-up)
Cast: Richard Booth; Farrell Cox; Dominic Creasey; Matthew Crouzieres; Jack Dorning; Emily Essery; Alex Gilbert; Mathew Hamper; Nicholas Hart; Philippa Hogg; Richard Holt; Lydia Hourihan; Sam Hoye; Michael Humphreys; Hayley Harland; Kojo Kamara; Max Krupski; Robert Lightfoot; Emma Maclennan; Jonathan Mathews; Miranda Menzies; Michele Moran; Alice Morgan Richards; Olivia Nakintu; Rhys Owen; Will Palmer; Alan Pearson; Zara Plessard; David Frias-Robles; Marah Stafford; Tom Syms; Kyle Taylor; Deborah Tracey; Meghan Treadway; Madwell Tyler; Marta Vella; Elizabeth Mary Williams; Alexander Wolfe; Hemi Yeroham
Images courtesy of Rah Petherbridge.
Alice’s Adventures Underground plays The Vaults until 23 September. For more information and to book tickets, please visit the website.