rule, the best children’s stories—be they novels, comics or TV shows—all
inspire the same question: “What on Earth were they taking when they came up
David Carlyle’s Welsh-accented Gryphon is a wonderfully lugubrious creation
With something of the air of a summer fairground, Anthony Neilson’s new version—created with composer Nick Powell—pretty much sticks to the episodic narrative of Lewis Carroll’s original, although the start differs in as much as having a sleepy Alice bored not by her sister but the lesson from “Mr Dodgson”—presumably meant to be the man behind the pen name of Lewis Carroll—before she accidentally falls down a rabbit hole.
While definitely not a pantomime, elements of that particularly rowdy form of theatre nevertheless appear to have crept in, not least the casting of Alan Francis as the brutish pepper-loving Duchess and the scatological consequences of the White Rabbit getting nervous. Importantly, though, there’s plenty here that’s pure Carroll, and it’s reassuring to see that the source material still inspires genuine laughs more than 150 years after its first publication.
Of course, there are some aspects which are genuinely problematic when keeping so close to the original narrative; arguably, to modern eyes, Alice does sail close to being pompous and prudish—and in danger of losing our sympathies. Thankfully, recent Royal Academy of Music graduate Jess Peet provides a genuinely solid centre for this production show, contrasted against the numerous weird and monstrous characters revolving around her—all played by the show’s ensemble cast. There’s not always much subtlety to be had here; by keeping to the style of the original, Neilson has produced what almost feels like succession of sketches, some of which are undoubtedly funnier than others, while a few rapidly outstay their welcome. “It’s at times like this I wish I had a purpose,” says Alice at one point, and it’s difficult not to agree with her. “It’s been too long since we last had a song,” the cast insist later on. And quite rightly too.
There are delights none the less: David Carlyle’s Welsh-accented Gryphon is a wonderfully lugubrious creation, all the more remarkable for being so unlike his boxing-gloved Mad Hare seen on stage minutes earlier. Gabriel Quigley as Queen of Hearts gives us a wonderfully self-focused, unhinged creation—especially during the croquet game in which they use flamingos as mallets. Tam Dean Burn’s Mad Hatter, meantime, is superbly rounded and entrancing, not least during arguably the most deliciously off-key song of the evening: If You Find Yourself On Speaking Terms With Time.
All of this takes place within the visual delight of Francis O’Connor’s bold, candy-coloured scenery; focused on a circular raised plinth, the staging playfully extrapolates from Tenniel’s original iconic illustrations without slavishly copying them—which is entirely appropriate for a suitably delirious production which pretty much does the same thing.