Originally written for Exeunt
Wonder is one of the first things to diminish when you leave childhood – particularly having grown on the cusp of the digital age, and it is not difficult to find oneself more at ease with scepticism than unrestrained delight. So it is that theatre becomes somewhat of a playground, and puppetry in particular – it is an allowance for wonder, to believe that a page is a bird, an actor a giant. But even with this license, it is often difficult to harness the imagination – to let go and believe. It is consequently delightful to find oneself entranced by a purse, a Venetian mask and a fur stole; but so it is that in a tunnel beneath the V&A, Metta theatre are creating a little bit of magic.
Poppy Burton-Morgan’s adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s original words adds a layer of poignancy to the tale of Alice in Wonderland as it is mingled with the true story of Alice Liddell, to whom Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) told the original tale. Both of Liddell’s sons died in WWI and Alicetakes its place amongst the deluge of artistic works intersecting with the conflict’s anniversary, but with a uniquely charming, and consequently affecting approach.
As an older Alice (Mandy Travis) rummages through her cellar during an air raid, recalling snippets of Carroll’s Alice’s adventures under ground, her son Alan (Jack Parker) is weathering an onslaught in the trenches. Here, perhaps, the production missteps as, in consequence of taking some time to warm up it also fails to narratively ground the play in a particular perspective – Alice’s or Alan’s. Cleverly disorientating a manoeuvre though this may be, without a base narrator it leaves the audience to drift a while before the fantastical elements emerge and we may forget to be bothered by it.
Travis is, however, a delight, and her tone a wonderful reminder of how remarkably obstinate and forthright Alice was – every inch the self-assured girl that so much literature of the time sorely lacked. Burton-Morgan’s adherence to Carrol’s original text gives the language room to play and serves as a wonderful reminder of the simple enjoyment of nonsense verse, in addition to giving strong voice to an older female protagonist – yet still an appalling rarity over a century on.
Complimented by Yvonne Stone’s beautiful puppetry, Alice really takes off when the caterpillar appears – embodied in this case by a Jacob’s ladder of old books and a pair of glasses. Opting for a stunning use of object manipulation, rather than constructed representational puppets,Alice chooses to pack its punch by transforming the ordinary to the remarkable as it moves towards ever darker territory. Whether they are both remembering each other, or whether Alan is fantasising about his childhood with his mother in his dying moments is unclear (unless you’ve read the programme: it’s the latter), but over both hangs the confusion of war and the staccato interruption of bullets and bombs interjects and dismantles both their imaginings; a subtle reminder that conflict tears its way through childhood, no matter how powerful the stories.
Alan’s possessions echo those of Alice’s story – the rabbit’s pocketwatch, the flask of liquid that makes Alice larger, the caterpillar’s pipe – but, as he increasingly loses his senses in the trenches, more and more brutal objects become part of their games, with a gun holster and a helmet becoming jovial, and troublingly endearing, dancing characters.
Alice manages to explore something necessarily obscure and bleak with a tone of nonsense and levity that is strangely appropriate. While the narrative focus may be deliberately confusing in order to echo Alan’s fragmenting consciousness in the trenches – most affectingly depicted as his red chalk stained hands frantically endeavour to paint everything red “she wants it red” – it can be easily forgiven for the sense of sheer delight that emerges once you give yourself over to the wonderful simplicity of a purse forming the Cheshire cat’s infamous grin. The unsettling sense of Other often generated by less skilled puppetry is cleverly embraced here, as the objects take on a bizarre relatability while remaining uncanny and fantastical; a perfect suitability for Carroll’s bonkers world. In layering the brutality of war with childhood games and memories,Alice becomes at once something directly poignant and bewitchingly magical.