Review: Southampton Theatre Group’s Alice, Annex Theatre, Wednesday 30 March 2011

This reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s works opens with a promising premise. Alice, no longer a child in this version but an eighteen-year-old girl, is lying unconscious in hospital and Wonderland is the world into which she has fallen through the rabbit-hole of a coma. The bleeps of a hospital monitor punctuate the scenes and we hear her family and nurses speaking in voice-overs; it is all very Life on Mars. Unfortunately, however, it is all downhill from here.

Jon Speed’s script is not up to the challenge of adapting Carroll’s classic and is more a collection of increasingly bizarre and at times excruciating encounters rather than a cohesive tale. Although Carroll’s books are by their very nature nonsensical and disorientating, a more structured approach is required to translate them to the stage, an approach which is missing here. The framing device of the coma could be used to much greater effect by Speed, but instead this is a narrative layer that is never fully explained and deteriorates to nothing more than a series of often painfully clichéd voice-overs.

Speed has also inserted an entirely superfluous character in the form of the narrator. Like the overall concept, this figure too begins promisingly, entering through the audience reciting Carroll’s nonsense poem ‘Jabberwocky’ before telling us about storytelling and fairytales. From this point onwards, however, she becomes an odd background figure who jars with the onstage action. Harriet Notton does her best with this non-role but is given very little to work with; she is gifted with only two or three genuinely funny lines and for the remainder of the evening is little more than a distraction as she wanders pointlessly through the audience.

As the one constant thread running through the loosely connected scenes, the role of Alice requires a strong lead actress to pull the play together into any form of unity. Lian Patston unfortunately has neither the stage presence nor the ability to achieve this nigh on impossible task and one feels that she has as little confidence in this piece of theatre as the audience. Her Alice encounters the strange world around her not with wide-eyed wonder or irritated confusion, but with a constant vague air that is only occasionally punctured by brief bursts of anger in a self-conscious performance that fails to engage the audience in her character’s plight.

Some star supporting turns go some way toward redeeming this play and making it a bearable night of entertainment. Ruth Angus is a deliciously evil Queen of Hearts, relishing every ‘off with her head’, while the wonderful double act of Mad Hatter Freddy Bowen and March Hare Zamira Monteiro produce the biggest laughs of the evening. Lucy Hughes is also impressive as an absent-minded White Queen, lending the role a delicate other-worldly quality and standing out as a highlight of the second half.

On the whole, however, this is a disappointing adaptation. A good idea has been wasted in a script that clumsily meanders along and tries too hard to be funny, producing very little true comedy. Wonderland it may be, but wonderful it is not.

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