Alice in Wonderland @ Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ireland's Blue Raincoat Theatre Company brings Lewis Carroll's quirky, idiosyncratic Alice in Wonderland to life in this impressive adaption

Live Review by Chris Dobson | 11 Jun 2019
  • Alice in Wonderland @ The Traverse, Edinburgh

Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not an easy work to adapt, as Tim Burton found out in 2010. Blue Raincoat Theatre Company’s Jocelyn Clarke first took on the challenge in 2006, and her adaptation, like Carroll’s book, is a quirky and bizarre concoction. The cast of six actors take on multiple roles – including several talking animals – but because all of the characters are so vivid, this never gets confusing.

There are two Alices, one played by Hilary Bowen-Walsh, the other by Miriam Needham. Bowen-Walsh’s Alice acts as the narrator for Needham’s journey down a rabbit hole, which sees her, among other things, repeatedly shrink and increase in size. The cast make good use of props to allude to Alice's transformations even as Needham herself stays the same stature. John Carty makes for a very creepy Cheshire Cat, whilst Sean Elliot is a gender-bending Queen of Hearts. Sandra O'Malley is especially amusing as a timid mouse and a pompous caterpillar.

Some of the gags overstay their welcome, but for the most part, the cast have the audience in stitches. Director Niall Henry impressively maintains a sense of coherence amidst all the chaos, whilst lighting, set and sound designers Barry McKinney, Paul McDonnell and Joe Hunt also deserve credit for creating an atmospheric production. The music in particular is excellent: at times frantic, at others sinister and slow, always in sync with the characters' moods. 

Although Alice in Wonderland is suitable for children, this production seems more aimed towards the adults. Shadowy lighting is used throughout to draw out the play’s darker themes, such as the question mark hanging over Alice’s sanity. “We’re all mad here,” the Mad Hatter (Brian Devaney) declares – Needham's Alice clearly conveys distress and bewilderment at the strange new world she's found herself in. Are the events depicted in the play ‘real’, or just figments of her imagination? 

Things happen in Wonderland that defy logic. When a baby turns into a pig, we are expected to just accept it rather than questioning why. While a certain amount of absurdity is expected in any Alice in Wonderland adaption, all of this silliness could, in another theatre company’s hands, be somewhat frustrating. Blue Raincoat, however, are committed and accomplished enough to pull it off – you gladly fall down the rabbit hole with Alice.

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, run ended