Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Old Vic, Bristol

Curiouser and curiouser
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Bristol Old Vic had a smash last year with Beauties and Beasties, a bloodthirsty and anarchic children's show based on some Grimm Tales. This year the same designer-director - the remarkable Melly Still - has been charged with coming up with something equally original for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which Simon Reade has dramatised.

The Bristol Old Vic had a smash last year with Beauties and Beasties, a bloodthirsty and anarchic children's show based on some Grimm Tales. This year the same designer-director - the remarkable Melly Still - has been charged with coming up with something equally original for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which Simon Reade has dramatised.

What a difference a text makes. Lewis Carroll's highly intricate fantasy is clearly not such pliable stuff to work with. The RSC discovered this recently when they produced a deeply humdrum stage version of Alice in Wonderland. Ditto Mike Batt when he musicalised The Hunting of the Snark, Carroll's nonsense poem, and produced a legendary flop.

This version falls between two stools: it is both wacky and respectful, achieving only partial lift-off as a piece of theatre. Nobody could accuse it, however, of Victorian retro. In visual terms, it is about as far from Sir John Tenniel's illustrations for the book as it is possible to get. Instead we have DIY Jackanory designs - the cast is actually sketching the set as the show opens - in a production that looks like the art room at a primary school. It's a world of crayon and pencil and low-budget invention. When a door is needed, it is walked on to the stage.

Forget Alice as a prim cutie, here Celia Meiras plays her as a rather gung-ho kid sister whose hair's a mess. The cast of talking livestock below ground is as per the story, though for those not already familiar with the book it is quite hard to sort out who's who. I rather doubt whether the teenies in the audience (the show is recommended for five-year-olds and upwards) will be able to tell the Dormouse from the Dodo in their minimalist costumes.

I warmed to the smug Caterpillar smoking his hookah, and the Cheshire Cat represented by the goofy Matt Rawle whose insane toothy grin - think Terry-Thomas sans the gap - is the star of the show. But the cast often seems curiously lacklustre. The Mad Hatter in his straitjacket is chronically depressed and depressing. The Duchess for some reason is dressed in a mauve suit like an Avon lady. The White Rabbit in dinky white shorts and white mink hat is clearly a closet case.

There are some clever theatrical transformations done with cunning costume changes and a pair of shoes which morph up and down in size depending on which bottle the shrinking Alice has drunk from. For me, the croquet match - pink umbrellas standing in for the flamingo mallets, the queen in startlingly violent form - worked best, its nightmare appeal getting to the heart of Carroll's logic-bending potion-addled fantasy.

The musical highlight is the Mock Turtle's big number, the wonderfully lachrymose ditty "Beautiful Soup" memorably delivered by Howard Coggins in a fine voice. The evening undeniably has its moments. But after the Old Vic's last Christmas triumph I'm afraid a faint air of disappointed expectation hangs over the proceedings.

To 22 January (0117-987 7877)

Comments