Thursday, 21 August 2014

Edinburgh Fringe Benefits II: Alice


Fourth Monkey Theatre Company

Venue: The Space On North Bridge

Queueing outside the cavernous Space on North Bridge at midnight, we’re lectured by a stern Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church and father of Alice, as he marches down the line in full academia regalia. “Pull your socks up, sir! “ he orders one punter in shorts and plimsolls.  As we reach the door, our hands are seized by girls in pink Victorian party frocks.  “Have you come to play with Alice?” they ask, relieving us of bags and jackets and settling us down on the carpet in Alice’s bedroom.

This Fourth Monkey Theatre Company drama is billed as a “dark and magical late night promenade adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, but that doesn’t quite do it justice.  What follows is an immersive, madcap two-hour chase over four floors of the old Victorian building – from room to room, floor to floor, in and out of the dark, driven by a skeletal puppet Cheshire cat and her handlers.  The Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse greet us in a high-ceilinged tea room; we eavesdrop on the cook’s peppery kitchen talk, take part in a frantic Caucus Race and encounter Alice’s terrifying mother – also the Red Queen - on the stairs. 

We, as the audience, don’t so much participate as become an integral part of the unfolding drama and its constantly changing moods.  We dance. We laugh out loud as we run up and down stairs; we allow men dressed as playing cards to decorate us with roses; we forget we’re watching a play and feel that we are dreaming.  There’s plenty of improvisation; it feels as though anything could happen. At one point, a sultry cat whispers into my 19 year old son’s ear: “Don’t worry, little boy.  You won’t be mad for ever.”

Too sinister to be a children’s show, this ‘promenade performance’  requires real physical and emotional energy from the audience – who wants to be left behind when the next scene is about to unfold? – and plenty of space to house its large cast,  elaborate set pieces and wild chases.  Central to the drama is the shifting, sometimes dark relationship between Alice and the White Rabbit – a stuttering Charles Dodgson, made dangerous by his own storytelling power, his imaginative transgressions as Lewis Carroll signified by a pair of white, fluffy ears.

After a devastating final courtroom scene which puts Dodgson in the dock, the Rabbit – and his story - unravels. Childhood has ended and we’re left in the dark, watching Alice crying in the arms of her grown-up sister.  When Alice cries, all the other girls in pink party dresses who’ve led us through the drama cry too.  Suddenly, we feel like voyeurs. And as the last wisp of the dream evaporates, Alice’s sensible sister tells us: “Leave now.  Would you just...go?”  And in silence, without a scrap of applause or acknowledgement, heads bowed, we rise as one and slip quietly out of the building into the sleeping city.

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