16 April 2021
Soulpepper and Bad Hats Theatre’s Alice in Wonderland (available to stream at home until Sunday, April 18) is a welcome detour into a world no more absurd than our own. Lewis Carroll’s classic is an ideal canvas for a creative mind – a story so popular that even this young audience will know it well but with enough room for reimagination. Viewers of all ages will be relieved to find no pandemic in this world – the work remains firmly grounded with its head in the clouds.
Instead, this Alice is notable in its restraint. It would be easy to bring this kind of fantasy to life with a pantomime exaggeration but this Alice lets its absurdity breathe without consuming itself. This shows an awareness of its limits as a stage recording – without the immersive setting of a theatre or the big screen’s hold on your attention, an audience must be won over more slowly. As Alice goes deeper down the rabbit hole, the razzle and dazzle dial up accordingly. Alice herself is relatable as a hyperactive schoolgirl and her fantasy plays out against a familiar backdrop – a focus on chess over croquet will resonate more unless your schoolgirls are English aristocrats.
This naturalism of sorts is reflected in the minimalist set design and staging. The bright colours and landscapes of most fantasies are replaced by a black box whose dim lighting creates a different aura of mystery – with the chess motif providing nice visual contrasts. Basic wooden frames and blocks that could easily belong in Alice’s ‘real’ classroom carve up the stage and keep the focus where the action is.
Without some sensory overload to fall back on, the leads’ performances are all the more important. Tess Benger is a curious, exuberant Alice whose sense of wonder draws you in too; Vanessa Sears steals the show as a ridiculous yet majestic Red Queen. The rest of the ensemble adds depth to this fantasy world and comes together well for engaging musical numbers.
This latest twist on a timeless tale doesn’t reinvent the wheel but the diversion it offers couldn’t be more timely.