Star rating: Alix in Wuntergarten ****
Venue: Underbelly Med Quad (Venue 302)
Alice and the Dream Child ***
Greenside @ Nicolson Square (Venue 209)
Alice Unhinged ***
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
The programme note for Alix in Wundergarten speaks of the history of radio drama, from the invention of a telephone designed to record in theatres in 1881, to the threat of being overwhelmed by television in the 1960s. The stage is set with a delightfully nostalgic recording studio, of faded browns and floral fabrics, where a solicitous young man, Fabian, welcomes visitors effusively, congratulating them one by one on joining the radio audience. It’s the beginning of a mesmerizing performance by François Pandolfo, the show’s writer.
Nick Steed, a smooth older radio star (authoritatively played by Dewi Rhys Williams, a veteran TV and radio actor) has been recruited for a recording of Alice in Wonderland.
As he tries to dominate performances by Gael (Dean Rehman) and Elin-Rose (Jess Lloyd-Jones), a kind of theatrical carnage begins. Elin-Rose arrives with an expression of permanent cross-eyed surprise, and voracious appetites for anything that hints at Eat Me. By the end this gentle studio scene has gone utterly haywire, in a superbly performed theatre of the absurd, a wonderful piece of mad hattery that leaves you with little idea of what happened, or why, and not caring to know. Watching Fabian maniacally implode is a delight. The production is by difficult|stage in Cardiff.
Alice and the Dream Child also explores the madness in Alice but in a very different, darker direction. “But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarks, in Lewis Carroll’s original. “Oh you can’t help that,” said the cat. “We’re all mad here.”
The production comes from Transforum Theatre, at Kent State University in Ohio, a place forever associated with the killing of four students in Vietnam War protests.
It opens with Alice dancing circles with her sisters, but rapidly turns dangerous and edgy; the rabbit hole is into a mental hospital, where someone else decides who is normal and who is not.
The play favours the view of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest that it’s the inmates who are sane and abused; whether or not you agree it’s searing stuff, strongly acted. Nurse Ratched is revived here, in a horrific and chilling portrayal by Jess Tanner, as the Nurse, the Queen of the asylym, with her sidekick Amy Kohmescher as a terrifically dark Cheshire cat. Anna Gallucci is the uneasy and frightened Alice. Natalie Rosmarin, a graduate student, wrote the play to give every character a specific mental diagnosis, with some very effective writing. The girls are dosed with drugs to silence abuse. Whether or not this is a fair characterisation of the mental health system, it makes for a powerful and impressive piece of work that pulls no punches in its treatment of Carroll’s motives.
Alice Unhinged, by Young Pleasance, was a visual treat from the get-go; a five-star opening set, and one stunning turn of costumes after another. Alice descends from a disco scene into a dystopian netherworld; among her troubles, she has her mobile phone stolen, which as anyone knows can produce a feeling of confusion and smallness. She ends up locked in the Red Queen’s “oubliette,” a place where people are forgotten. The ensemble cast shows precision timing and direction, and the high production values are obvious; each scene was like having a front row seat in a Tim Burton film, or scrolling through a series of picture-perfect Facebook snaps. Actors appear in a wonderful set of reptilian masks; girls twirl and cluster in white whale-boned dresses, or as lavish flowers. The Red Queen, Phoebe Campbell, stands on high delivering her death orders with a kind of Katherine Hepburn hauteur. Phoebe Stapleton plays Alice suitably sensibly, giving space to characters like Dan Norton-Smith as a wonderfully turned out Mad Hatter and Hamish Lloyd Barnes as the sinister cat. The script could have been better turned, with a stronger narrative drive; but this show is an invitation to a mad, mad world.
Alix in Wuntergarten until 29 August; tomorrow, 7:10pm. Alice and the Dream Child until 20 August; today 4:10pm. Alice Unhinged until 20 August; today 1:30pm.