Another day, another re-interpretation of a classic of children's literature. This time from Oxford University Dramatic Society, who bring us Lewis Carroll's timeless tale Alice in Wonderland. This re-imagination by student playwright Matt Parvin, a member of the Royal Court's Young Writers programme, weaves together newly imagined and often disturbing scenes of Alice's home life around Carroll’s original tale, with social commentary on child labour, capitalism and sexuality.
Any new take on the old classics is always welcome; however, this only succeeds in feeling like a melting pot of ideas which, instead of enhancing the story, merely adds unwanted layers of confusion. That said, all of the fundamental elements of the tale are here: the Mad Hatter's tea party; the White Rabbit; the caucus race and the Queen of Hearts croquet match and it is these, rather than the new additions, that elicit the greatest response from the audience.
The audience bring expectations to any presentation of this tale and with material so ripe for creative re-imagining it is almost unforgivable to stage it with such a lack of visual appeal. There is no set, minimal use of props and a reliance on the energy of the ensemble and the physical theatre to drive the narrative. The costumes comprise white long johns and cotton shirts with a few hats and masks here and there to break the starkness. That said, the production is saved by moments of freshness and originality in the realisation of some of the key scenes: Alice's changes in size, the hookah pipe-smoking Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat's vanishing and reappearance are all imaginatively done and the many entries and exits from the performance space are nicely utilised.
The cast must be applauded for the sheer energy, exuberance and volume which they bring to the piece, however in such an intimate performance space the aural assault can be overwhelming at times. There is also a tendency from most of the cast to overplay, which would be necessary in any other venue but one as small as this. There are however a few notable exceptions, the actresses playing the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts both deliver rather more subtle and well-judged performances which are all the more arresting for being so.
While credit is due for attempting to bring a new perspective to an old classic, in the quest for originality one can't help feeling that the mad charm of the original has given way to all-out madness.