Review: Alice in Wonderland – Storyhouse, Chester

Photo: Mark McNulty
by Nigel SmithTHE new £37m Storyhouse development in Chester’s city centre has opened with its first performances from the in-house company, already responsible for the enduringly popular open air theatre at Grosvenor Park. This spring they will run four plays at the venue, three of which transfer to the park in the summer.The first of these transferring shows is a tremendously imaginative adaptation by Glyn Maxwell from the classic novels by Lewis Carroll. For most of us remembering the stories, Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking Glass tend to blur into one, largely because many adaptations treat them as a single entity. This new version is no exception, but Maxwell and director Derek Bond have taken some fascinating choices in making sense of the surreal narrative. Whilst including an uncanny number of the original episodes from the rather piecemeal original, they have woven their own narrative thread to create an enchanting play for all the family.When we first meet Alice sitting on an imaginary bank the extended opening develops into a framing device. Alice is torn between wanting to grow up and learn everything and remaining in childhood forever. Tomorrow will be her first day at boarding school, where she will be expected to use the grownup name of Alicia. She is scared of being unable to make friends, of not knowing how to behave and of being bullied.So, as she weaves a spell to stop time, Alice and Alicia become two mirrored halves of her character. Alicia stays behind to face the future while Alice follows the mysterious White Rabbit into a land of fairytale.The ‘Eat Me’ cake and ‘Drink Me’ bottle become metaphors for things that make her feel strong or weak, whilst parallels between all the strange characters she meets and the people in her real life are made magically clear.Most of the 11 actors play multiple roles. Charlotte Gorton transforms from the Duchess to Mother, whilst Jonathan Dryden Taylor’s Caterpillar later becomes the family doctor at her bedside. There are so many theatrical highlights in the inventively simple staging. The Mad Hatter’s tea party is pulled off with immense ingenuity and wit, with Alex Mugnaioni’s zanily unhinged Hatter sparring verbally with Alice along with Tom Connor’s hysterically mad March Hare. Connor sports a different set of bunny ears as the White Rabbit, a hugely physical performance that’s a great vehicle for his award-winning comic acting.Many of the characters have an educational role to play, but none more so than Caolan McCarthy’s Cheshire Cat, who takes every opportunity to throw in nuggets of local history. Even the Lion and the Unicorn manage to give us a crash course in heraldry.Alice is delightfully played by Rebecca Birch, with Anna Leong Brophy as her more grownup self. The closing scenes reconcile Alice’s conflicting desires to grow up and to always keep hold of the child within her.Alice in Wonderland plays in repertory at Storyhouse until 9th July and then transfers to Grosvenor Park from 15th July to 20th August, and family friendly discounts are on offer.