Theatre Review: Alice’s Adventures Underground, the Vaults, Waterloo, London

Les Enfants Terribles' Alice’s Adventures Underground, Vaults Theatre

Les Enfants Terribles’ Alice’s Adventures Underground, Vaults Theatre

Go down the rabbit hole for a wonderful immersive experience in Alice’s Wonderland

You could argue that it’s difficult to go wrong with a story as enchanting as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the slightly darker follower up Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There , but handling a text as bonkers and imaginative as Carroll’s demands big creative thinking.

The minds behind Les Enfants Terribles’ brilliant production were clearly firing on full creative juices when they devised Alice’s Adventures Underground, a production that has transformed the musty, damp Vaults theatre under Waterloo station into a magical place where we disappear into Alice’s – and Carroll’s world – for 90-joyous minutes.

The production merges Alice’s first adventure in Wonderland with her return in Through the Looking-Glass. Alice is absent for much of our journey, but she’s never very far away if you look in the right places…

Wonderland is now ruled by the tyrannical Red Queen who has banished nonsense from her kingdom and is on the warpath to find the cards who ate her tarts (I can confess I was one of them now there’s no chance of having my head cut off).

The content is perhaps a little light, but the plot isn’t an issue when the staging is so charming and entertaining. Samuel Wyer’s maze-like set is hugely impressive as we weave in and out of the Caterpillar’s middle eastern cushion-strewn den into Bill the Lizard’s ‘secret’ room, ducking under corridors hung with pages from novels and walking through wardrobes. There are some wonderful details in the set, particularly in Lewis Carroll’s cluttered study, the first room we find ourselves in, that’s littered with references to the novels if you look hard enough.

Oliver Lansley’s script is sparkling and funny and throws new light on the sheer inventiveness of Carroll’s often poetic prose. The interactions with the actors also lead to some properly belly-laugh moments (Knave of Hearts: “What fruits to do you think are in All-Fruit-Jam?” Audience member: “Strawberry”. Knave “…”

Along the way you meet the floating grinning head of the Cheshire Cat (a great piece of puppetry) and enter the Duchess’s steamy kitchen where I stood grinding pepper into the soup under the stern eyes of Chef. You, as the audience are very much a part of this so leave any self-consciousness at the burrow door.

The exact journey you have will depends on the choices you make and the cards you are – literally – dealt. Will you drink to shrink or eat to er, grow? Will you be a Club, Spade, Diamond or Heart? After separating through two doors, each group is taken on their separate journey before meeting up again at the lush Mad Hatter’s Tea Party where you sit at a huge table set for 60 celebrating an un-birthday while the Mad Hatter and March Hare run riot over broken tea-cups and poor dormouse, confusing the poor White Rabbit (who was as adorable as he should be) with their endless tea-time and confusing riddles.

The production is wonderfully imaginative and hugely fun. Grown-up theatre is many things, but it’s rarely as playful and charming as Alice’s Underground Adventures. The production runs until 30 August 2015. Don’t be late to the party…

Alice’s Underground Adventures | the Vaults Theatre, Waterloo | Until 30 August 2015

Theatre Review: The Cement Garden, The Vaults

George MacKay as Jack and Ruby Bentall as Julie

George MacKay as Jack and Ruby Bentall as Julie

 The Vault Festival is an eclectic six-week programme of arts and entertainment at the underground arts centre, Vaults, in the bowels of Waterloo.

This year’s flagship productions are an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, and this, Ian McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden, brought to the stage for the first time.

The Cement Garden is a coming of age tale with a dark heart, set in the stifling heat of the summer of 1976. On the cusp of 15, Jack is the second of four children with an inappropriately rampant crush on his beautiful older sister, Julie. The intensity between the pair is compounded when first their father, then their mother dies and, in a bid to avoid foster care, they bury her in a block of cement in the cellar. As you do.

The two of them are left alone to play screwed-up-families with their younger sister Sue (Georgia Clarke-Day) and five-year-old brother Tom. Unrestrained by adults and society’s rules, Jack and Julie start to inhabit their new roles as “mum and dad” a little too well over the long summer holiday.

Young Tom is represented by a manky rag doll manipulated and voiced by David Annen. At first this seemed like an unnecessary affectation, the sort of off-beat idea that can blight more experimental theatre. But it worked well and the doll soon and seamlessly become part of the family. Less distracting than a child actor’s presence would have been, you believed in Tom’s innocence and his confusion as his world crumbled.

The Vault’s Library space could have been built to stage a play as disturbing and claustrophobic as The Cement Garden. The unusual two storey space under Waterloo’s train tracks is certainly made good use of, even if the resulting set is more imaginative and interesting than practical. Perched on wooden benches in the middle of the long ‘stage’, there were several blind spots, but since I spend most of my theatre trips in the gods, behind a pillar or flush up against the stage, I didn’t find this view as much as a problem as some might. Still the unusual set up is a little distracting and the amount of space the actors are required to cover meant some frantic rushing around that was at odds with the languid feel of the original novel.

Talking of the book, knowing the story well does blunt the sharp edges of the play. With McEwan’s taunt writing diluted down to its bare essence, the element of surprise becomes greater. But the young cast are excellent and bring a real feeling of suspense and foreboding. Ruby Bentall as the practical, inscrutable Julie and BAFTA Rising Star nominee George MacKay as Jack are particularly brilliant as the two leads and, while the original tension of the novel has got a little lost in its transition to this dark, expansive underground space, they deliver powerful performances that leave you a little winded as the lights come on.

by Suzanne Elliott