Lewis Carroll's tales of that most famous Alice are regularly mined for both stage and screen adaptation, with recent versions including Tim Burton's pair of films, Les Enfants Terribles' subterranean adventure or the National's divisive musical in late 2015. It’s got to the point where Alice's escapist fantasy has appeared so frequently that the subject almost feels passé – the whimsy of Carroll's world and his coterie of creatures losing a lot of their colour through countless reimaginings and rejiggings.
It's a massive sigh of relief, therefore, to see Rose Theatre Kingston’s vibrant new production of the story (this time, for the season, named Alice in Winterland). All the classic plot beats are here (though the production also leans more on Burton's Hollywood-friendly version rather than the Disney classic) – girl falls down rabbit hole, has some shrinkage issues and growth spurts, meets an assortment of surreal characters, fights the evil Queen of Hearts, saves the day before trying to get home.
While this plot may not seem all that unfamiliar, it is embellished with some fantastic creative choices. Writer and director Ciaran McConville relocates Alice’s story to the First World War, surrounding her with themes of loss, conflict and sadness. Her trip to Wonderland is as much a personal escape as an accidental trip down a rabbit hole. For such a surreal text, McConville teases out a harrowing personal tragedy and journey to acceptance. It's also smartly constructed, with humour suitable for both younger audience members as well as smarter wordplay gags for the older generations. There are even a couple of Carroll Easter eggs in there for good measure.
The cast of five professional actors is accompanied by a wealth of talent courtesy of the Rose Youth Theatre, with these younger actors (aged between 5 and 19) holding their own wonderfully, delivering some tickling set pieces and endearing characterisation. Jack Bartlett’s young Dodo turns sincerity into well-crafted humour, while Emily Porter’s Dormouse came close to stealing an anarchic (and sometimes a bit too eccentric) tea-party sequence. The professionals are just as watchable – Susannah van den Berg has a rollicking ride as the wicked Queen, while Jonathan Andrew Hume’s musical number as the Caterpillar is well executed and kept the younger members of the audience enchanted. The show wouldn’t function without a solid turn from Alice (of which there are four in the cast, but on opening night was delivered by a perfectly pitched Madeleine Lynes).
Beyond this, the production is aided by some stellar puppet design and direction from Nick Ash and Yvonne Stone (as well as confident handling by the youth cast), especially in the second act. The sense of scale (as well as its ability to alter that scale, especially in the shrinking and growth sequences) is bolstered by Dan Denton's video design; full of moving cogs and technical artistry, it transforms the wintery Wonderland into a shifting and unpredictable canopy.
The first act may be slightly too long (there was certainly a larger amount of fidgeting amongst the younger audience members around the 70-minute mark), but the Rose Theatre can be congratulated for conjuring up a marvellously festive family treat, and only the grumpiest Queen would not enjoy Alice walking through a winter Wonderland.
Alice in Winterland runs at Rose Theatre Kingston until 7 January.