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.
More ambitious than previous New Vic Christmas productions, Beauty and the Beast isn’t quite accessible to children as the others, but does a good job for the mostly adult audience it attracted instead.
The first thing I have to congratulate the New Vic for is making it through the Christmas season in one piece. I hardly need remind you of what a nightmare it’s been a second year running. Their sister theatre the Stephen Joseph, having bucked the trend last year so well, ended up cancelling half its run. From my end of the woods, only two of the five Christmas productions made it through the full run. And yet somehow, the New Vic has made it unscathed. That alone will be welcome news: the New Vic Christmas production is one of the most lucrative ones around, running well into January to cater for the school parties from miles around queuing up for tickets. This is not the first time they’ve impressed me with their resilience: when I saw The Wind in the Willows three years ago, I saw surprised to discover Mr. Toad dropped out sick, a minor character stepped in at short notice, and the rest of the cast covered his parts – and made it look like that’s how they planned to do it all along. This time round, maybe it was just luck. But well done anyway – I don’t know how how did it, but you made it.
But I digress. There are no finishers medals her, we must look at the play itself. This production, postponed from 2020 (with its small-scale replacement Coppelia itself postponed seven months), is Theresa Heskins’ take on a fairy story, but unlike a certain very popular touring show going on right now, this one goes to great lengths to avoid the Disneyfication. The 1990s film, classic though it is, took major liberties with the original plot – which is fine, but in all of the subsequent stage shows and live-action remakes Disney has an irritating habit of behaving like their animated films are the originals rather than take a second look at the source material. Heskins, on the other hand, brings back long-forgotten parts of the original book. Rather than being transformed into a Beast for refusing shelter to an old woman (which I always thought was a bit of an over-reaction), his predicament comes about from the Goblin wars in revenge for his warmongering warrior-Queen mother, which is a more understandable. And so the stage play begins with the little-known tale of the Goblins spinning their tales of mischief – mischief that unfortunately escalates rather quickly.
So now that I finally have the time to do this, I intend to do a big catch-up on my reviews. Now, the festival fringe and the West End may have hit the ground running in the spring and summer, but most regional theatres played it safe and waited for the autumn. However, there was a bit of theatre activity in the regions, and a lot of it was focused on outdoor performances. Although there was never a point in 2021 where outdoor theatre was permitted but indoor wasn’t, those performances in 2020 that went ahead outdoors did quite well and for some the idea stuck.
A lot of the outdoor performances happened at the Festival Fringes, particularly Brighton – those I am covering in their respective roundups. But apart from that, there were two performances that particularly caught my eye.
The John Godber Company has been one of the most determined companies to perform on in any way they can, although it’s fair to say they were at a bit of an advantage here. With the Godber family themselves taking on so many roles over the years, it was an easy matter to put on a family event with Sunny Side Up. I would like to have told you about that, but the performances were very popular and sold out quickly. However, not all John Godber performances are family affairs, at to get back into the swing of things this year, they put on one of their largest productions to date at Hull Marina.
The first thing I will say is how much I love the venue. Stage @ The Dock came about from a regeneration of the Marina and presumably came about in part from Hull as 2017 City of Culture. Obviously it’s at the mercy of the weather, but on a balmy evening it’s a great place to see an outdoor-set play. With the John Godber Company having helped bring this space into the spotlight, I hope it’s not forgotten about now that indoor theatre has got going again.
For once, a John Godber Company play features writing from someone other than a Godber, for this is a collaboration with Nick Lane, who is writing most of Blackeyed Theatre’s current plays as well as many of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s Christmas plays. The challenge of most adaptations is choosing what to keep in and what to leave out: with the exception of the shortest of short stories, it’s near-impossible to stick to original plot point by point and hope to be done in two hours – and certainly not Herman Mellville’s epic of a book. The best focus I think you can put on a stage version of Moby Dick is the suicidally dangerous obsession of Captain Ahab – and that’s precisely what is done here.
Already a surefire hit for a New Vic Christmas production, the re-instatement of one historical character is a show-stealer.
Before everything got interrupted by the event, I had a a backlog of reviews, which I decided to clear as and when the respective theatres starting moving back to life. First off the mark is the New Vic, so let’s catch up on their Christmas production back in January. Before The Event. (Remember, don’t think about The Event.)
This is common knowledge to the New Vic regulars, but for the rest of my followers, the New Vic has one of the most lucrative Christmas seasons around. Whilst most pantos will settle for a run of six weeks or so, the New Vic runs for almost three months, due in a large part to attracting every school in Staffordshire (more or less). And with good reason too: artistic director Theresa Heskins has made this one of her top specialities. Last year’s Wind in the Willows showed what she is capable of producing (made even more impressive by a minor ensemble actor standing in for Mr. Toad at the last moment and making it look like the part had been written for him all along), and this year it’s the turn of the classic tale The Prince and the Pauper.
Mark Twain, best known for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, wrote this tale as a foray into “historical fiction” with his fictionalised story of boy king Edward VI and a street child he trades places with. However, being American, Mr Twain wasn’t that clued up on British Tudor history, whilst on this side of the pond every child has Divorced Behead Died etc. drilled in history lessons. As a result, some of the historical characters are people who we Brits neither recognise nor care about, whilst some better-known figures don’t really feature – and this is where Theresa Heskins takes the opportunity to make her mark. Out go a few stuffy Palace officials, and in come Princesses Mary and Elizabeth – and it’s future Mary who steals the show.
Apologies to everyone who’s been waiting on reviews – I have been directing a play which just went insane with its workload, and I’ve had little time for anything else. But I’ve finally got this out of the way, and I’ve manage to upgrade sanity level up from “gibbering wreck” to “slightly less gibbering wreck”. So now’s as good a time as any to catch up, in a sort-of chronological order.
So, in early July, I caught two plays in the round as part of a round trip involving the Buxton Fringe launch, a visit to a sister and a photo stop in the Pennines. Both were high-profile shows and both are revivals, so there’s little need for me to give either constructive advice or encourage people to come along, but here’s my verdicts nonetheless.
Around the World in 80 Days
Jules Verne’s famous circumnavigation-themed novel is a tough to to adapt faithfully. So detailed is the story that it’s next to impossible to capture the train-by-train-by-boat-by-train-by-elephant etc. epic in that level of detail. In fact, one of the biggest oddities is that some people consider the most accurate adaptation to be the 1980s children’s series Around the World with Willy Fogg. Even though all the characters are animals and they introduced extra characters such as the sneaky master of disguise wolf Transfer who tries and fails to sabotage the journey every episode, the 26-episode format meant the whole journey could be captured very faithfully. But this is theatre, where you have two and a bit hours, trains and boats on stage are not an option, and getting a lion to play Mr. Fogg is unworkable for several reasons. Continue reading →