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Alice in Wonderland

Iris Theatre company's production of Lewis Carroll's classic continues their summer season at St Pauls' Church in Covent Garden

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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The boutique markets and well-trained entertainers of Covent Garden are constantly mobbed by young tourists and the result is a frantic crush. Alice in Wonderland, in the grounds of the adjacent St Paul's Church, is a refreshing reprieve from this aggravation: a private outdoor party for those willing to tumble down Iris Theatre's rabbit hole. It's a devilishly fun piece, if a little unpolished, which will particularly suit families looking for light evening entertainment.

Most in the audience will be well-versed on the story of Alice who finds herself in a whimsical land of shape changing, mad-hatters and a mysterious Cheshire cat. It's a promenade performance with different areas of the grounds devoted to croquet, the rabbit hole, the royal parlour and other iconic scenes from the text. Each are nicely crafted and a rough edge only increases the quaint charm of the setting.

The opening is a little flat with a fairly quiet musical number. It's not until Alice spectacularly grows 30 feet tall and bursts from the church that the real fantasy begins. The large Cheshire cat puppet emerges, with a wonderfully expressive tail, and the cast begins to spark. A sense of pantomime is increased by the small company who play multiple roles with a level of energy that will surely take its toll as the run continues.

Laura Wickham's Alice is nigh on perfect while Matt Wilman's Caterpillar is a wonderfully lofty toff. But David Baynes absolutely steals the show, channelling Noel Fielding as the March Hare and Queen of Hearts - he sends the audience into fits of laughter with his (if anything over-committed!) performance. He's a wild fire amongst the scenes, taking pleasure in embarrassing unwitting audience members during the game of croquet and at the Mad-Hatter's tea party.

Interactive opportunities abound for the audience who can take a seat at the mad-hatter's table, join in a caucus race and make up the jury at the royal court. There are few spaces however and some may feel left out, especially as the audience begins to rush between scenes in an effort to get the best spot as if it's the last seat on the tube.

A much needed rest comes with intermission ("tea time") but the second half of the piece somewhat drags. As the sun sets the audience feels pushed onwards to more spaces rather than encouraged to explore with the same wonder that initially captured them. Much like the royal cards amongst the rose bushes, some pruning is needed: the mock turtle's scene becomes ponderous and while the royal parlour is beautifully decked out with a gigantic teddy bear, the final song weighs a bit too heavily for the otherwise light play.

It's a clever, succinct summary of the tale however and while it won't be to everyone's taste it is a perfect attraction for families, fans of the source material and those with a strong sense of whimsy. Veering between farce and pantomime the cast manage to keep their heads amongst the frenzy of Covent Garden and bring both Carroll's novel and the grounds of St Paul's Church to life.

- Patrick Brennan