Tim Hughes is enchanted by Creation’s magical outdoor staging of Alice, on the story’s 150th anniversary
Curiouser and curiouser... When it comes to open-air theatre, we’ve never seen anything quite like Creation Theatre’s Alice.
This swaggering re-telling of the classic takes the audience on a journey of their own – one, of spiralling madness illuminated by flashes of delight and surprise.
After a summer of al-fresco Shakespeare, the prospect of an evening saunter around a college garden is light relief; no straining to follow tortuous plots or polite applause at witty wordplay. For the cast, there is also no compulsion to kick around the theatrical furniture by striving for something bold and new. This is Alice, after all; a book as synonymous with Oxford life as traffic jams, drunken students and the Radcliffe Camera.
The story – published 150 years ago this year – is more than familiar; the lines are mantras, the scenes engraved in our consciousness and the characters as recognisable as old friends.
“Begin at the beginning,” the king would advise the cast, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Yet, as you’d expect from Creation, there are surprises galore.
Rather than opening, the play gradually slides into view, through the device of a mobile phone conversation on the college patio. As Alice (played brilliantly by Rachel-Mae Brady as the wide-eyed and innocent, yet determined young woman) skips off in pursuit of an athletic, tumbling White Rabbit (played by Luke Chadwick-Jones – a trained gymnast and trampolinist prone to diving into a somersault at the drop of a hat), we are similarly drawn in.
The garden of St Hugh’s is ideally suited to this potty promenade – airy glades, clipped lawns and gnarled trees forming the perfect backdrop to encounters with nutty monarchs, a deranged tea party, and an eye-popping Cheshire Cat – of which I will say nothing, at risk of spoiling the surprise.
Highlights include Alice’s meddling with psychotropic substances, which causes her neck to extend to the height of a tree (how they did it, I’m still not sure) a brush with the Jabberwocky, and a game of croquet, played by children.
Director Helen Tennison has pulled a dazzling masterpiece out of this rabbit hole, with a show which appeals as much to adults as the children for whom the story is intended. But, as the White Rabbit would say: don’t be late; you only have until Sunday to catch this theatrical highlight of the summer.