When I was a child, I never could make head nor tail of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland. It seemed strange and frightening and not really a story; it wasn’t until I was 12, and saw Jonathan Miller’s wonderful TV version, that I suddenly understood the magnificent, surreal quality of Carroll’s perfect English absurdism. And the problem with Anthony Neilson’s memorable new version of Alice for the Lyceum is that it captures this strange, ambiguous quality to perfection; so perfectly that grown-ups will probably adore it, older children may well be fascinated, and younger children are quite likely to be bored, puzzled or frightened. The Lyceum auditorium has been turned into a gorgeous Victorian box of delights, with little antique hot-air balloons floating everywhere. And in Francis O’Connor’s lush design, everything looks ravishing and just as it should, as Jess Peet’s calm, logical little Alice twirls down the rabbit hole into a richly-coloured hallucinatory underworld peopled by rushing rabbits and weeping mock turtles.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ****
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Five Guys Named Moe ****
Festival Square Theatre,
Jack and the Beanstalk ***
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
In style, Neilson’s production concedes very little to the idea that children’s Christmas shows should be short, brisk and legible. This one is leisurely in approach, and given to startling skiffle-like bursts of communal song by composer Nick Powell, based on Carroll’s great nonsense lyrics; its pace sags towards the end, and no-one in the impressive cast seems quite sure how much audience participation they should seek or expect.
Yet the spectacle is so rich, glorious and strange that I found it irresistible; a Christmas gift for Carroll fans and absurdists, if not necessarily for kids.
This is a memorably busy Christmas theatre season in Edinburgh, with five major shows opening this week; and just across the road from the Lyceum, the Edinburgh’s Christmas team have created a new temporary theatre, a big-top space with a generous cabaret atmosphere that makes a perfect setting for Clarke Peters’s hugely successful West End hit Five Guys Named Moe. First seen in London in 1990, the show is a juke-box musical inspired by the music of the great bandleader Louis Jordan, who wrote classic boogie hits like Choo Choo Ch’Boogie and Saturday Night Fish Fry; it tells the story of an ordinary guy with woman trouble whose miserable room is suddenly invaded by five guys named Moe – all smart shoes and flashy clothes – advising him on how to get his life back on track.
It’s not a show for women who can’t take an evening of being relentlessly referred to in the third person; the gender politics are irredeemably old-fashioned. Yet the singing and dancing is terrific, the lighting spectacular, the six-piece swing-band superb; and the generous male energy of the whole show an absolute joy, for anyone in search of an evening of pure festive fun.
There’s also plenty of fun on stage at the King’s, where the regular team of Allan Stewart (Dame Trot), Andy Gray (daft Hector) and Grant Stott (evil henchman Fleshcreep) line up to deliver this year’s panto, a jolly but perfunctory version of Jack And The Beanstalk. At less than two hours there’s almost no time for the story, or for Stewart and Gray to luxuriate in their fine comic partnership; and the show’s unsatisfying design, courtesy of panto-makers Q-dos, seems more interested in pointless hydraulic special effects than in telling the wonderful beanstalk story in a vivid, magical style.
The finest performance comes from Stott, who is now a prime panto villain, taking the time to relish his relationship with the Edinburgh audience; there’s also terrific work from the tiny dancers of the Edinburgh Dance Academy. It speaks volumes about the style of recent King’s pantos, though, that when Gray and Stewart try to encourage some end-of-show song-sheet singing, the audience seem to have forgotten how to do it. Perhaps it’s time to ditch the all-purpose bought-in pantos, paint up a backdrop with a few familiar Edinburgh landmarks and start making these all-important Christmas shows from scratch again, as the King’s in Edinburgh used to do, in brilliant style.
*Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland until 31 December; Five Guys Named Moe until 7 January; Jack And The Beanstalk until 15 January.