5 stars out of 5
Brilliantly conceived and executed family show rooted, in every sense, in its local community
Rather like the play itself, Brixton House is set in the heart of its community which it will serve as a cultural hub for generations. What a splendid, confident addition it is – like the best 21st century theatres, it is a destination in its own right.
Not that one needs an excuse to take the underground to the end of the Victoria Line to see a play set on the underground at the end of the Victoria Line, because Poltergeist Theatre have created a gem of a Christmas show ideal for, as the deathless phrase has it, kids of all ages.
Alice (a wonderfully petulant Nkhansie Phiri) is bickering with her mother about all the things that tweens bicker about and storms off the carriage only to find herself on another tube train in the company of some very unusual passengers indeed. She’s studying Lewis Carroll‘s book for English, so she recognises some of the eccentric travellers, but they’re a little different in real life. Soon they’re half-helping, half-hindering her as she tries to get home, but she earns their trust, helps them with a range of hang-ups and rallies them against The Queen. She’s driving the train to nowhere with a tyrant’s zeal and must be defeated – and she learns a few lessons of her own in the battle.
Jack Bradfield has pulled off that wonderful trick of writing a script that appeals in equal measure to kids and adults, with a running gag integrating tube stations into the dialogue (an old Two Ronnies sketch that one) and many in-jokes for fans of the source novel to leaven the slapstick. There’s a nod or two towards the train in Spirited Away, a film that also owes much to Carroll’s classic, and an edge about alienation in a moral that is heartfelt and explicit, but never heavy-handed in its didactic mission.
The youngsters can take away Alice’s character arc towards acknowledging the power of love within a family that has problems that don’t actually centre on her; the older (okay, much older) members of the audience can contemplate the dangers of life passing one by on a loop from one faceless station to the next.
The ensemble cast are tremendous, conjuring vivid characters at a helter-skelter pace. Toyin Ayedun-Alase, Khai Shaw, Rosa Garland and Will Spence charm us all and can scare us a little too, but not so as to provoke nightmares. Even they are upstaged by sensational sound design by Alice Boyd, a gorgeous and spectacular set full of surprises by Shankho Chaudhuri and Hamiltonesque raps from lyricist and rapperturg (yes, true), Gerel Falconer. Clearly, there is a little more budget available than one often finds on the fringe, but it’s been extremely well spent, down to tiny details that I suspect only those lucky enough to bag a front row seat on the traverse stage could appreciate.
There’s barely a pause over the two hours or so running time and I doubt there’s better value anywhere in London if you’re looking for a family show that starts and finishes in Brixton but takes you on the most extraordinary flights of fancy in-between.
The Reviews Hub
4 stars out of 5
Lead Writer and Director- Jack Bradfield
Alice and her mum are having an argument in Brixton station. Alice runs onto the Tube before her mum can stop her, and is transported into a fantasy world: a Wonderland, even. But this Wonderland is the world of the Underground, and over the next hour and 40 minutes Alice will come face to face with goalkeeping twins, anthropomorphi
sed noses, and do battle with the Queen. A peppy but sometimes mis-paced and mis-plotted show, Alice in Wonderland is doubtless a Christmas treat.
Taking Carroll’s story and making it very local, much of the humour is derived from endless (they come every other line) puns and references to the Underground and Brixton. Undoubtedly appropriate for a play premiering in Brixton House, your liking for this show may depend on how well you like this style of joke and are amused by recognising place names, but the majority are well-observed and amusingly placed. Same with the transformation of Wonderland’s inhabitants into commuters, pigeons and rats, all ably played by the talented ensemble (Khai Shaw, Rosa Garland, Will Spence) who receive the lion share of the jokes and deliver consistently committed performances. Special commendation must go to Shaw’s humorous Hammersmith, Garland’s Tortoise (not Turtle) and Spence’s Nose—these are the creatures that make Wonderland feel alive.
For the most part Alice’s story is engaging and convincing, delivered by Nkhanise Phiri in one of the most believable child characterisations of the year. Her growing self-confidence in herself and her rap are the highlights of the show, as is her desire to help the inhabitants of the Underground grow, even including Toyin Ayedun-Alase’s dual roles of the Mad Hatter and Queen. However, the relationship between Hatter, Queen and Alice could be more sharply drawn; we don’t feel the parallels between them as much as writer Jack Bradfield may have liked, and despite Ayedun-Alase’s sense of menace the Queen never feels like too much of a threat. That role goes to the impressively realised Jabberwocky and Cat, but even they are neutered by the end. It fits with the sweet and wholesome tone of the show to have everyone redeemed, but a little bite beforehand would make the redemption all the sweeter.
The production is sold by the impressive lighting design of Rajiv Pattani and the malleable but instantly recognisable Tube carriage set by Shankho Chaudhuri and Israel Kujore. “Rappaturg” Gerel Falconer creates bars that lodge in the memory and propel our enjoyment of the story consistently, if not always the plot. In fact it’s only in the second half that the plot really gets going, and we move from amusing vignettes wherein Alice meets the Underground residents and into her very funny fight against the Queen.
Moving, memorable and creatively realised, Alice in Wonderland is a fantastically original update of the classic text. Propelled by a committed and comedic cast, as well as a deceptively humorous but ultimately emotional story, its uneven pace and muddy themes can be forgiven by its sheer energy and enjoyment factor. Alice-ocracy, indeed.
You’d think that nearly 160 years since Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and after countless stage productions and film and television adaptations that it would be nigh on impossible to come up with something fresh and innovative based on the book but if you like me thought that, then you’d be wrong because production company Poltergeists’ making of Alice In Wonderland has proved me and hopefully you, totally wrong.
Alice In Wonderland.
A Brixton House and Poltergeist Production Nkhanise Phiri (Alice) – Credit Helen Murray.
Two years in the making with numerous workshops and collaborations, Poltergeist with lead writer and Director Jack Bradfield have come up with a delightful confection at one of London’s newest and most exciting cultural spaces, Brixton House. This is almost a site-specific piece as it’s set in a train in Brixton underground station which is just five minutes’ walk away from the theatre. Alice In Wonderland tells the story (no spoiler alert – everyone knows the story – don’t they?) of Alice, an 11-year-old local girl who’s suffering the existential angst that all girls (and boys too) suffer as they enter puberty. She’s having problems at school and she ‘hates’ her mum who’s a single mother and is having problems of her own bringing up a feisty young girl. They’re having an argument on a train as they get separated and Alice falls into a metaphorical hole before setting off on an adventure in a parallel world that she has no idea how she got there.
Along the way like all conventional tellings of the story, she meets a white rabbit, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, a Queen, a turtle and goes to a tea party. However, in this unconventional telling, Tweedledum and Tweedledee are a football-playing couple called Dom and Dee, the turtle is a morose and lost tortoise and at the tea party are a rat, a pigeon and a runny nose – some of the scary things we all try to avoid whilst travelling on the tube. There’s also a Mad Hatter although in this case, she’s called Chatter and drives the train.
This is a wonderful production where all the elements come together perfectly. Jack Bradfield has done a wonderful job directing the cast of 5, 4 of whom play numerous roles. There’s a lot going on throughout the show and Bradfield has directed with a deft hand letting the pace never flag apart from when it needs to slow down a little to get a message across.
Shankho Chaudhuri’s set design is terrific. He utilizes the traverse stage to turn it into a tube train with benches that indicate seats along with signage above the audience’s heads. There are also tunnel entrances at each end and you get the feeling that you’re underground and excellent use of the underground logo. Alice Boyd’s sound design is never obtrusive but adds another wonderful layer to the production. There’s music and sound effects – subtle when they need to be but loud and powerful when the narrative demands it. Like the sound design, Rajiv Pattani’s lighting design adds another wonderful layer to the production. Once again there’s innovation with lighting using LED strips in the ceiling of the tube train that indicates unseen characters speaking or the train moving or sometimes the emotions of the characters. He even makes the unseen Jabberwocky scary with just two simple lights.
As for the diverse cast, they are all wonderful. Nkhanise Phiri (who isn’t 11), is wonderful as the 11-year-old Alice going through the emotions whilst trying to navigate herself through the maelstrom of the strange world she finds herself in. Toyin Ayedun-Alase is perfect in the roles of Mum, Chatter and The Queen Of The Line giving each part its own distinct characteristics. Khai Shaw, Rosa Garland and Will Spence make up the rest of the tight-knit cast playing various characters with humour and wit, and when it’s needed, great pathos.
This is a wonderfully produced Alice In Wonderland that’s underpinned by some top-class writing. There are some superb (albeit sometimes purposely cheesy) puns on tube station names and the various different lines. There’s also the odd message or two slipped in about avoiding becoming a “commuter”, not speaking on the tube and breaking the loop of a monotonous life. It’s also a bit meta as Alice keeps referring to the book she’s reading – ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland‘ of course which the other characters dismiss as not being of the “real” world. There’s also some excellent rap music that brings Alice and her Mum together as her journey comes to an end.
Alice In Wonderland is the perfect antidote to the clichéd, hackneyed and often crude pantos that proliferate around this time of the year. This is a proper family show for everyone whatever their age and Poltergeist and Brixton House should be cheered to the rafters for having the courage to take a tale as old as time and make it fresh and relevant to our times.
What an adaptation of the beloved classic in this Christmas show by Poltergeist! An Alice in Wonderland set in Brixton and the London Underground, on at Brixton House until 31 December.
Theatre company Poltergeist, whose work we have seen once before, have created something really special here. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll’s classic 1865 of children’s literature, is one of those works which holds a special place in our cultural imagination. The Salterton Arts Review has previously been to see exhibitions and artworks inspired by it. And yet the well is not exhausted. Poltergeist, like so many others before, have drawn inspiration from the story of Alice and her adventures underground. Only this time, it’s literally in the Underground. As in the London Underground.
Alice argues with her mother at Brixton station, and jumps onto a train just before it departs. She’s studying Alice in Wonderland at school, so when she starts to meet characters who seem a bit familiar, she thinks she knows what’s going on. Ok fine it’s a tortoise not a mock turtle. A rat and not a dormouse. But there’s enough that’s similar here to ground Alice and give her confidence in facing often nonsensical challenges. Only, as Alice points out to her mother right at the start, the stakes for the original Alice aren’t high enough. It was all a dream? What a cop out! It’s a case of be careful what you wish for: our Alice finds that she can’t wish away what’s happening to her, and has to face her fears head on instead.
It’s a bit of a cliché to say that, but in this case it’s true. Jack Bradfield’s adaptation works at different levels. There’s a good mix of funny and mildly scary scenes. There’s a liberal sprinkling of harmless jokes, mostly based on the names of tube stations. And there are also different morals to take away. For younger people there are important messages about being confident and comfortable with yourself and not caring what others think. Also about tackling your problems head on. I found myself pondering whether there’s also something in there about activism against authority? I’ll let you decide that for yourself if you see the show. For older people, there is a very clear imperative to think about the routines you’ve settled into and need to break free from. The relative complexity of the script in a very simple wrapper is a definite strength of the adaptation.
This script is ably acted by a small cast, all of whom apart from Alice (Nkhanise Phiri) play multiple roles. Like the original story, Alice is working out some internal anxieties through the characters she encounters in Wonderland, so Toyin Ayedun-Alase plays the Queen of the Line and Chatter (a Mad Hatter figure) as well as Mum. The standout characters played by the remaining actors include the Tortoise (Rosa Garland), a disembodied Nose (Will Spence) and a commuting Rabbit (Khai Shaw). The cast are animated and committed, with a lot of thought having gone into the physicality of the production.
In this they are aided by the remainder of the creative team. The set design (Shankho Chaudhuri) is brilliant. When I was last at Brixton House it was for this and I sat in typical raked auditorium-type seating. I couldn’t even tell to begin with if it was the same space, the layout was so different. This time we sat on either side around a stage that recreates an underground train and tunnel, running the length of the theatre with entrances/exits at either side. They’ve even got genuine Victoria Line moquette and fake posters in the distinctive London Underground font.
Lighting by Rajiv Pattani helps define the space and the Wonderland world, blending seamlessly with Alice Boyd’s sound design. The costumes by Debbie Dru are perfect. They even had a Lyricist/Rapperturg (Gerel Falconer) on board to ensure catchy bars and lyrics. The whole thing is flawless – what a team! And what great support they clearly have from Brixton House to make this brand new theatre space their own. This type of partnership will make it a great community asset and incubator for truly creative productions.
Alice in Wonderland is a great Christmas show and a great family show. It’s a lot more than that, too. It’s a great Brixton show. Also a great example of a creative team at the top of their game. It’s just a great show in general. I enjoyed myself immensely, as did the rest of the audience.
There are two things I particularly enjoyed about Alice in Wonderland. One was the polish of the production. Everything had been thought about, down to the smallest details. It made it fun and immersive with nothing to jolt you out of the Wonderland world the cast and creative team had created. The second thing I really enjoyed was the warmth and heart of the production. There are various messages but they combine well, and give a human core around which to wrap the fantastical script. There are emotive moments between the human characters, but also between Alice and some of the characters she meets in Wonderland. The way the audience responded to these shows that this was a shared feeling.
Salterton Arts Review’s rating: 5/5
North West End
4 stars out of 5
Alice in Wonderland devised by Poltergeist is an original, lurid take on the classic. On the tube, Alice and her Mum wait on the platform after a Christmas shopping spree. An argument ensues and suddenly Alice gets transported to a zany, alternate dimension of the London underground, meeting strange characters at every turn. She explores the world with confusion and wonder as she tries to return home, before becoming embroiled in the problems in her new environment. It is magically creative in the way it transforms some mundane aspects of tube life into strange, absurd characters.
All of the odd characters created a coherently bizarre world tied together by effective, energetic multi-roling. Rabbit (Khai Shaw) stresses as he rushes to his corporate job. Tortoise (Rosa Garland) is a toy that has been forgotten and left on the tube. Dee and Dum are football fanatics, who are either making bets or playing. District and Circle are the Queen’s guards, kept under her power by threats of maintenance. A virtual cat (Will Spence) is revealed to be a computer specialist who hides at the end of the tube. The Queen (Toyin Ayedun-Alase) comes across as sassy and power hungry but beneath her exterior, she cares for the passengers but struggles to drive the train. Nkhanise Phiri plays a fantastic Alice, capturing a strong sense of naivety, earnestness and the boldness of youth. The dynamic between Phiri and Ayedun-Alase was truthful and sincere, giving the story its drive.
The set designed by Shankho Chaudhuri featured two rows of tube seats with spaces between them. Adverts hung high overhead and tube lights were on a panel suspended from the ceiling. The use of lighting by Rajiv Pattani and the physicality directed by Jack Bradfield brought the set to life as Alice jumped from carriage to carriage. Surround sounds designed by Alice Boyd created the echoey, vast feel of the tube.
The writing was filled with puns, running gags and cleverly integrated technological aspects like phones and apps into this adaptation. Like the original, a moral becomes clear as Alice discovers they must break the loop and overcome their fears. Alice re-enters her world, transformed and more conscientious of others. The comedy of the familiar and the inventiveness of this production make this a wonderfully unique Christmas show.