Wellington Pantomime Group’s reputation for providing audiences with a couple of hours of colourful fun brought out the crowds last week, writes Gill Paltridge. Their latest production of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ at the Wellesley Theatre invited us to defy wintery weather and slippery streets and escape with Alice down the rabbit hole for a while.
Lewis Carroll’s wacky tale is a surreal, dreamlike narrative that derives not least from his extraordinary understanding of children’s imaginative abilities. Populated by the most zany characters, weird animals and bizarre situations, it makes absolutely no sense, but it has proved time and again to work for successive generations of children, both as a book and in performance. But to make it work effectively as ‘drama’ requires a limitless budget, some serious technical trickery and a fertile imagination to rival Tim Burton’s – none of which an amateur group Wellington Pantomime has available..
To be fair, this is the pantomime version of ‘Alice’ and so we should expect pantomime’s stock characters – dames played by large men, principal boys played by tall girls, heroines, villains and a comic turn or two – all thrown into the mix with Carroll’s anthropomorphic creatures. And this is exactly what we get – not ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as much as ‘Alice in Pantoland’.
Alice Cambridge as ‘Alice’ is near perfect. She looks right, conveys naive zest and childish glee in her adventures and has an assured stage presence. Paul Smith’s Dame does exactly what Dames should do – makes the most of gender-bending jokes and general daftness – whilst ‘borrowing’ Dame Edna’s ironic mouth and Les Dawson’s bosom-hitch for physical effect.
The nicely-drawn marriage between Dawn Morton’s Queen of Hearts and Catherine Vicarage’s diminutive King looks like an unhealthy relationship between a rat and a rhino but it works, particularly the latter’s obvious understanding of the way body-language and well-worked mannerisms enhance a role. For me, the King actually stole the show, although Mary Lewis’s White Rabbit is another star turn – an agitated, hyperactive bundle of fur – who tuned in completely to the animal’s twitchiness.
Less successful is Sam Shepherd’s Joker – another character that seems to have strayed from his own story. He was irritating – deliberately? – and is clearly very comfortable in telling bad jokes and playing to the audience but the role could do with greater attention to detail – particularly physically – and much more sustained control. He can do camp and confident but there is more to make from the role. Kirk Shepherd’s Knave of Spades draws the necessary boos and hisses from the audience but might learn to convey physical menace and malice as well as shouting.
Having to struggle with such a messy script can’t be easy for either the director or the cast but they did try with it. But, sadly, it didn’t quite work, particularly in the second half. The plot just about made sense before the interval, despite stirring together some ill-conceived fragments of narrative, plucked apparently randomly from children’s stories, into Lewis’s madcap imagery. So, a scene with what appears to be some capering haggises singing ‘Hoots, Mon! There’s a Moose, Loose …’ was followed by the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee, two large eggs – wearing costumes that many actors would demand danger-money to put on – appear to have got lost en route to ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and decided to gate-crash this panto instead. After the interval the plot gives up almost completely and makes way for a succession of song’n’dance numbers and a bit of ad-libbing and audience interaction.
Despite the negatives, the show looks good. It is beautifully lit in the essential primary colours and the disco effects in ‘Boogie Wonderland’ and a bit of UV in ‘Clair de Lune’ make them both effective musical numbers. The costume team should be lauded for turning actors out onto the stage looking right – dancing haggises excepted (and they are not to blame anyway). The band of strolling hippies, that defy any kind of attempt at explanation or purpose, suggest that one of the team was right there in the Age of Aquarius and has kept the wardrobe.
Choreography too works well – and the plot certainly needs bracing with dance numbers to prevent it from falling apart – as does the musical backing. Ian Webb-Taylor and his musicians underscore and punctuate the whole piece – and manage to get through a shopping trolley’s worth of confectionary at the same time. The backstage team do their thankless tasks effectively and all the technical trickery – fireworks, bangs, crashes etc – is managed faultlessly.
There is no doubt that an audience that represented the town’s entire age-range had a good night out at the panto. There was enough to enjoy and a huge amount of work and commitment to applaud. It is such a pity that the chosen vehicle – the script itself – failed to do anything other than stutter before lurching to a halt on the hard-shoulder. The team worked manfully to get it going but the engine was dead – and Alice didn’t go to Wonderland.