Alice in Wonderland: pink elephants edition

Skip to: Family album

Out goes a cute and wholesome Wonderland popularised by Disney and in comes a sinister Wonderland with danger and menace around every corner. Yes, I like it.

I know we should avoid comparing adaptations of stories to the Disney version where one exists, but for one it’s appropriate to open with a bit of Disney trivia. In the early days of Disney, there were two distinct styles of animation. “West coast” was the style that could be considered traditional Disney, with wholesome content, naturalistic drawing and usually a moral. “East coast”, on the other hand, featured morphing characters, themes of drugs/sex/death and usually hedonistic jazz music, of which the early Betty Boop cartoons are the best known example today. Walt Disney did, however, have some East Coast animators on his books, and when he let them get their hands on Dumbo, they added into the wholesome and twee story the drug-induced nightmare sequence that is the pick elephants sequence. And that is why children have had nightmares since 1941.

And so we come to the New Vic’s version of Alice in Wonderland. All of Theresa Heskins’s Christmas productions have been big successes, filling up the theatre long after most pantos have packed up, but this is regarded as the biggest success of all. (Indeed, Northern Stage picked this up for the own Christmas Production a few years back.) Having now seen this for myself, I can best describe this as how Disney would have done Alice if Walt had given this the Pink Elephants treatment. And, for the avoidance of doubt: that means I liked it.

The New Vic makes a big thing of their titular character being different from the one we’re used to. In both the book and the Disney version*, the story begins on a very middle-class rowing boat in the very middle-class Cotswolds. Theresa Heskins aims to make this more relatable to a Stoke audience by making her families who travel through The Potteries on a canal boat (Stoke, of course, having loads of canals). They live day to day and just get by. A clever bit in the town is where everyone she meets has an upcoming alter-ego in the other world. The future Mad Hatter is earning a living as a hatter (because of course), and the future White Rabbit is currently a slightly sinister magician pulling a white rabbit out of his hat. Out goes the rabbit hole and in goes a trap door in the theatre where the white rabbit magician is working.

*: The 1951 film that is. There’s also the 2010 live-action version, but that was so horrific my therapist tells me not to discuss it out of sessions.

By far the most striking aspect of this production is not how this differs from the book, but how much is the same. Most people’s idea of Alice in Wonderland is indeed the Disneyfied one, with kindly strangers, Fantastic sights, fun – and where there are villains, they are comical and inept. Was that rereview-alice-wonderland-new-vic-2ally Lewis Carroll’s vision though? There’s numerous contradictory theories about him as a person, but it’s fair to say he was probably pretty messed up. Whatever the truth, I’m not convinced his vision was the twee one imagined by Disney and co. Visually, the play could easily be in the style we know, but in the acting the menace is never far away. This Red Queen is not a comical tyrant but a more sinister and vindictive one, who everybody’s scared of. When the demands the beheading of the white roses painted red, that includes the sentient ones she’s just met. Alice’s character stays broadly the same, but even in the harmless Mad Hatter’s tea party, it’s just ominous enough to keep her on her guard. I did hear mulitple criticisms of the Tweedledum/Tweedledee bit going on too long, but I quite liked it, because it was at this point I realised this was going to be the East Coast version of Alice that we never had. Even the signposts are sinister.

Like many adaptations, this combines chapters from both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass – including, maybe inevitably, both the cards queen and the chess queen into the Red Queen. But before you stand up screaming, Theresa Heskins went as far as she could to make her the Red Queen from chess, with only a minimal nod towards the Queen of Hearts character. As expected, the production pulls every trick in the book to get the impossible on stage, including the shrinking and growing and even a disappearing Cheshire Cat. Original music features throughout the performance, with “Beware the Jabberwock” one of the musical highlights for a very un-twee scare Jabberwock on stage.

I sometimes thing Theresa Heskins underestimates one of her greatest strengths, which is to work menace into a play that’s still family friendly. The trial scene in The Prince and the Pauper and the Fox from The Wind in the Willows spring to mind, but it was surely the original version of this play where she perfected her craft. If I have any criticisms of her work, it’s that sometimes she shies away from darker themes when she didn’t need to, but here, the balance is just right.

I realise I might not be writing the best advert for this. Most reviews praised the production for being “delightful”, but I truly think the strength in this is doing something different from this obvious treatment. The obvious drawback? Dark storytelling at Christmas production is, in theory, liable to scare away children from your audiences – the Saturday January performance I saw was mostly adults, but it’s family audiences who make up the bulk of the ticket revenue. But with the New Vic’s productions running far longer than most Christmas productions are reputedly getting school bookings from basically the whole of Staffordshire, somehow they get the best of both. Good job done, and the reputation of the New Vic’s best-loved Christmas show form its back catalogue is deserved.

Also been on: Family album

Apologies, really late to the party on this one – I meant to include Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play in a batch of reviews, but I couldn’t find anywhere to put it. But since the New Vic is the closest thing you’ll find to the Stephen Joseph Theatre outside of Scarborough, now is the good time for a catch up.

b25ly21zojm5zdawmwixltaxmjetngvioc1indgwltriyzu3ntrmndy3odpkmgy1nji1zs1jnwyzltq2odgtytflys04yjk2ndrmzdvjotcFamily Album is one of Alan Ayckbourn’s many time plays. In 1952, young parents Peggy and John are moving into their new house. In 1982, Peggy’s daughter Sandra is trying to keep a chaotic birthday party under control. In 2022, granddaughter Alison and wife Jess are moving out, and come across a lot of things bringing back the memories. In case you haven’t already guessed, changing attitudes is a strong theme in this play. It would have been unimaginable to John and Peggy that one day his granddaughter would marry another woman.

Like Ayckbourn’s previous play at the SJT, the attitudes of the men of their time steer the story a lot. However, Girl Next Door was a case for the defence – where the old-fashioned attitudes of the serviceman are more than outweighed for the love for his wife and the fear he faces on the front line – John is Exhibit A for the prosecution. It’s not obvious at first, but when we get to know him, we realise just what a control freak he is, to both his wife and the other women in his family.

The reason it’s not obvious is important. A lazier writer seeking validation from the gallery would have written John as a raging misogynist from the start – but that wouldn’t make sense. Peggy is an intelligent woman and it’s hard to image she would have settled for someone like that. Instead, they are a couple who are deeply and truly in love in their idyllic 1950s optimism. There’s only hints of John showing his true colours in 1952 – alas, the recollections 70 years later show how bad it got. Not even the vulnerability he showed during the war is enough to redeem him.

There is one weakness to the script – and, to be fair, it’s a weakness I’ve seen in all plays attempting to run scenes generations apart. We never quite manage to fill in all the decades between the three time-frames – and where it is, is gets a bit over-dependent on Alison telling everything to Jess. Not sure how else that could have been done, but it’s always better to show don’t tell. One thing I felt the script didn’t quite explain was why – after John ruined her chance of getting an education in favour of her layabout brother – Sandra would pick as a husband someone just as bad as her father. My speculation is that she did that because she was convinced this is normal behaviour of men and didn’t set expectations any higher – but what a thread that would have made had it been part of the story.

The staging is good and suits the round well, with minimal set: just lights for the walls (colour coded to time periods), and bit of furniture carried on at the beginning and carried off by the end. Was a bit puzzled when Alison and Jess started through something we’d established as a wall, until I realised this was an extension that didn’t exist 70 years ago. Still waiting for something to top Roundelay, where Ayckbourn’s mutli-threaded writing worked to its best, but this was an enjoyable play which – if you can – if most effective is you can see it in tandem with Girl Next Door.

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