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Review: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)

Anthony Neilson directs and adapts Lewis Carroll's classic in Edinburgh for Christmas

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at the Lyceum Theatre
© Drew Farrell

Much as I enjoyed its nonsense as a kid, I've always been slightly baffled by the enduring popularity of Alice in Wonderland. It's ultimately a sequence of vignettes rather than a story (what actually happens, after all?!) and the book's joy has always been its beautiful use of language, making it dashed difficult to pull off in a narrative form, like an evening at the theatre.

All of which is to give credit to the Edinburgh Lyceum for managing it with such success and the entire theatre is thrown wholeheartedly into it. The foyer is festooned with classic illustrations from the novel, and a kite and a hot air balloon merrily glide over the audience's heads in the auditorium before the show begins. The set itself is a series of receding proscenium arches and movable props which glide in and out to suggest the different locations. The Caterpillar's mushroom and the Mad Hatter's table are especially good fun, and the Duchess's kitchen is a particular triumph with its clouds of pepper and hilarious baby. Meanwhile a discrete circular screen at the back helps with the more fantastical elements like the rabbit hole or the disappearing Cheshire Cat. It's a riot of primary colours and jolly images, and Francis O'Connor's designs are a keystone of the evening's light-hearted feel.

Anthony Neilson has both adapted the text and directed the staging, and he's to be congratulated for doing it in such an approachable way. There were lots of children in the first night audience, and all of those that I could see (including the six and eight year-olds who were with me) were totally drawn in by the slapstick and the bright colours, while adults were able to smile at some of the classic linguistic jokes.

The actors also balance the slapstick and the wit very well. Jess Peet plays Alice with authentic precociousness and puts in a remarkably assured performance for a professional stage debut. Gabriel Quigley hams it up as the monomaniac queen, and John Macaulay manages to get a surprising level of sympathy out of the king's part. Other highlights for me were Pat and Bill, the Giant-Child-Eliminators, the rather camp White Rabbit, who looks as though he's recovering from myxomatosis, and Alan Francis' ferocious Duchess.

Some bits do unavoidably drag. The Griffin and the Mock Turtle overstay their welcome; Nick Powell's songs are anodyne and pretty dispensable; and the ending tips a little too easily into anarchy. It's still jolly good fun, though, and the slightly earlier start also means you can still get the kids into bed at a reasonable time.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland runs at the Lyceum Theatre until 31 December.

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