Monday, 1 May 2017

Theatre Review: Alice's Adventures Underground

On Thursday evening, I was invited to a blogger event for Les Enfant Terribles' immersive adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, Alice's Adventures Underground, at The Vaults.

Despite accepting immediately, mainly due to the suggestion that there would be free food and booze, I was apprehensive about this one. Being a classic introvert, slightly claustrophobic and generally anxious about literally everything immersive theatre didn't seem like something that would be for me. Too unpredictable, too few points of familiar reference to cling on to, too much audience participation (two of my least favourite words in the English language).

Now, I don't like to admit when I'm wrong, but happily I was so completely wrong about this one. Like, 100% wrong. More than 100% wrong, were it mathematically possible to be so.

I loved Alice's Adventures Underground. It's unlike anything I've ever seen before - and likely will see again. Calling it theatre or a production, though it is undeniably both, seems to do it a disservice. It's an experience in the fullest sense of that word, and one that's very difficult to do justice to with a few photos and a few hundred words. But that's what I'm here for so let's give it a go, shall we?

The badge and the suit card were part of my story for the evening.

The first thing to note with this show is that it's actually more than one show. As each audience moves through the series of rooms that comprise the gigantic set, it's split up (bear this in mind if you're going in a group, you're unlikely to stay together). First by whether you choose to 'eat me' or 'drink me' (I went eat, the little peach jelly sweet you get was yummo) and then, randomly, by suit (I got hearts). Certain audience members also get selected to do particular tasks too, including me - and it says a great deal for this show that I both got totally into my task, helping the Nine of Hearts write a love note for the Two of Hearts and secretly delivering it over the course of the story, but also was so into everything else that was going on that I frequently forgot all about it.

Adding to the variations, the cast basically works in rep within the show. Each cast member is assigned to a team and each team covers four parts, cycling through them so that each actor gets a chance to play each part. That little factoid blew my tiny mind. I cannot fathom how on earth you prepare for that in a show like this. Learning four sets of lines aside, the level of precision of timing involved, the fact that you have to know where you're going through the huge multi-room, multi-storyline set, the proximity of the audience to you at all times etc etc etc - how can you keep that level of information in a human brain and still properly lose yourself in the part you happen to be playing that night? But everyone manages it - the entire cast were great; so charismatic, so talented and so completely into it.

Alice holding court at the afterparty.

The other thing that I must mention here, as they are also cast members in their way, is the amazing use of puppetry throughout the show. In my story, I got to spend a lot of time with the Frog, a fantastically well realised human size and operated puppet (think Timon in the stage version of The Lion King) who melded object and actor so well it started to mess with my head. The butterfly and the Jabberwocky, that the whole audience met in the climactic trial scene, were more traditional puppets but still so effective, the latter in particular. I was just sad that I never got to meet the Cheshire Cat who apparently was equally impressive.

The star of the show for me though is the set. Covering I don't know how many rooms on I don't know how many floors the first thing that's impressive is the sheer scale of the endeavour here. The Vaults is a huge, cavernous space immediately under Waterloo station (it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise what the rumbling noise overheard was...) and every millimetre of it has been transformed for this show by set (and costume) designer Samuel Wyer. Scale aside though, the thing that completely floored me is the level of detail in every room. If this were a book, you'd describe what Wyer achieves as universe building. Layer upon layer of minute detail - from the obvious fun to be had with making your audience feel that they're growing or shrinking right down to ensuring that every letter and book that anyone could possibly see has something meaningful written on it - is built to create a very distinct atmosphere of a faded, dirty, slightly wrong but still wonderful land.

I was really lucky as part of the evening to be able to take some photos of one of the best sets - The Mad Hatter's Tea Party - at an afterparty with some of the cast and creatives.

Tea party place settings.

Afterparty at the Mad Hatter's.

Time, also party of the Tea Party set.

This gives you a sense of what I mean both about the general universe building that runs through the whole show and also the level of detail involved. This scene in the show was one of my favourites as it so totally captured the essence of its part of the story and was, for my money, where set, characters and plot united the most effectively. The fact you get a cup of 'tea' (vodka and something, not sure what, but emphasis on the vodka, regardless) probably helped.

The fantastic theming stretches to every moment of your experience in Wonderland, not just in the show but in the whole building - the Wonderland Bar, designed by Darling and Edge, for example is just as carefully themed and home to amazing cocktails by Smith and Sinclair and yummy comfort food by Saucy Chip. A small caveat here: though I was lucky enough to be able to try them for free, the food and drink are at proper London prices. They are also *so* good and the cocktails are super imaginative, super on theme and super strong (the latter is probably why I got into my task so thoroughly tbh).

The Wonderland Bar.

Entering the space.

Smith and Sinclair cocktails: The Cheshire Cat (L), a colour changing gin and
green teas concoction and Painting the Roses Red (R), rose gold liqueur, lemon,
honey, hibiscus paint and prosecco.

Saucy Chip's Dodo Dolce Vita mac n cheese

I absolutely adored Alice's Adventures Underground. It's so imaginative, so much fun and so completely immersive in every possible way that I can't imagine how anyone could not enjoy it. As I've said though, it's also completely impossible to do justice to in words and pictures - you really have to experience it to understand its power. Suffice it to say it's the best thing I've seen in London this year and I can't imagine how anything else will dethrone it.

Alice's Adventures Underground is at The Vaults until September 23rd.

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