(Harvest Rain Theatre Company)


Adapted by Tim O’Connor from the novels of Lewis Carroll

Pro-am production

“If you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”

That’s my favourite line from Alice through the Looking Glass, and I’m glad that Tim O’Connor didn’t leave it out of his very funny and technically brilliant adaptation of the Alice books for Harvest Rain. Adults who know and love Lewis Carroll’s masterpieces are going to need that willing suspension of disbelief that Coleridge defined as constituting poetic faith, otherwise they’re going to be very puzzled by the dramatised version of Jabberwocky that’s built into the show, and the aggressively Frenchified version of Humpty Dumpty.
BR> Here are the characters we already know and love on every level from that of pure fantasy to abstract metaphysics, but the gasps and laughter from the packed audience on first night came more from the delight of new discoveries than from recognition, and I wonder how many people were aware that the Wonderland of the White Rabbit and the Duchess is a very different world from Looking Glass Land, and that the framing metaphor of the second book is that of a chess game rather than the card game of the first.

These may be semantic quibbles and have nothing to do with this joyous production, but I’d like to think that eight-year-old Bridie, who was enchanted by the characters both known and unknown, might go on to read the books themselves as she gets older, and as she gets even older and a tad more intellectually curious, might make her way to Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice (a plug here for one of the best books ever written), in which he explains most of the puzzling linguistic tricks, Victorian poetry and mathematical concepts that Carroll employs.

You don’t need to know any of that to enjoy this show, but I offer the reference to anyone who, like me, knows that Carroll’s stories are far deeper than they appear on the surface, and who would like to explore them further.

Meanwhile, however, you should perhaps explain to your children, when you take them (as I hope you do), that there are two books, not one, and that the Queen of Hearts (Wonderland) and the Red Queen (Looking Glass Land) are different characters. Kids of primary school level may not worry about these distinctions, but older children deserve to know that the White Rabbit inhabits a different world from that of the Lion and the Unicorn.

Plot there is none, in this production at least, merely a succession of wondrous characters, costumed out of this world to the furthest extent of Josh McIntosh’s wild imagination. Tenniel it ain’t, although clearly based on the original illustrator’s designs, but neither thankfully is it the Disney version, from which too many children gain their impressions. The costuming employs all the tricks of pantomime as well as puppetry, and if I say that of the multitude of characters I especially loved the oriental Caterpillar with his turban (Luke Kennedy remains one of my favourite actors in this company), the White King on his hobby horse (Jason Chatfield’s beard is a masterpiece) and Tweedledee and Tweedledum as spherical purple schoolboys (Catarina Hebbard and Tamara Meade), that’s not to downgrade any of the other costumes or the actors who inhabit them.

Naomi Price makes an enchanting Alice, as WASP as any Victorian maiden you could desire. Her little-girl English accent suits the character perfectly, and she wears her white pinny and striped stocking with aplomb. Jess Loudon doubles as the wondrous Cheshire Cat (a special commendation to creator Chris Lane for this blue furry puppet), and as the story-teller. It took me a while to be convinced of the usefulness of this latter introduced character, but I came to realise that some of the mimed incidents, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, or growing alternatively larger or smaller, wouldn’t have been intelligible without her commentary, which also gave some structure to the confusing array of characters who appear in the complex chain of events.

This is a must-see show, for little children who have at least heard of some of the characters, for older children who might be inspired to go back to the books and read them, and even for older people, not just to revive childhood memories, but to think more deeply about some of Carroll’s ideas.

Is life just a game? A frivolous game of cards where nothing really matters, except in a dream? Or is it a game of chess, where the outcome depends on decision-making and thinking ahead? How much control do the pawns and the knights and the kings really have over their destiny? And even when, as in Alice’s case, the pawn becomes a queen, what does it benefit her?

Plenty of weighty metaphysical questions here if you want them; otherwise just enjoy it as one of the most spectacular shows you’re likely to see all year.

But always remember, my beamish boy (or girl), that when it’s brillig, and the slithy toves are gyring and gimbling in the wabes, you must always beware the Jabberwock, with jaws that bite, and claws that snatch. Keep your vorpal sword in hand and take courage from the thought that, like the Queen of Hearts and the painted roses, it might be only a figment of your imagination.

Director Tim O’Connor

Designer Josh McIntosh

Sound Tim O’Connor

Playing until Saturday 30 June 2007: Wednesday – Saturday at 7.30pm, Saturday matinees 2pm

Duration : 2 hours, with one interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 7th June 2007)