Something consistently excellent about Belt Up’s productions is their dedication to preserving the illusion. For a company which has made an art of audience interaction (and frequently participation) this may seem like a contradiction in terms. Yet from the moment you are ushered into the softly lit, whimsically decorated rooms and settled on to chairs, sofas, or the floor, by a member of the cast – not once do you witness any member of Belt Up out of character. There is no awkward getting into position at the beginning, no clumsy curtain call to break the spell that what you are seeing is not real. This playing with fantasy and reality is a recurring theme of Outland, based on the life and stories of Reverend Charles Dodgson, more commonly known by his nom-de-plume Lewis Carroll.
The production dances between Carroll’s twilight years at Oxford, spent reminiscing with alumni Muriel and Arthur whom he had known as children, and his forays into Outland - a world of his imagination in which battles are fought, monarchs are crowned, and grand adventures are had. There are many allusions to C.S. Lewis, also an Oxford academic, and his mirroring fantasy world of Narnia, which can be reached through a wardrobe. The fact that Lewis wrote nearly half a century after Carroll seems to matter little; when half of the play is set in an epilepsy-induced imaginary land, concepts of time and space diminish in importance.
There is an enchanting moment when, looking for playmates with whom to hunt the Snark (a terrifying creature, though not quite as bad as the frumious Bandersnatch), Serena Manteghi (playing Muriel and Sylvie) points to the audience and suggests in accurately childlike tones ‘What about them?’ To which Dominic Allen, playing Carroll, replies in wonderment; ‘You can see them too?’ It is an exquisitely charming idea and really explores the topsy-turvy nature of the imagination. To Lewis Carroll, the world of Outland is beginning to appear more lucid than real life. ‘How boring the real world must seem to him’, wonders Muriel, watching Carroll succumb gratefully to his visions of Outland.
I was expecting a little more darkness from Outland. There were archery competitions, jam tarts and un-birthday picnics aplenty but I was expecting a lot more of the sinister rumours about Lewis Carroll to be mentioned. The exact nature of his close friendship with Alice Liddell (the namesake of his most famous work) often provokes controversy. Outland sidesteps this question, portraying Carroll as a Peter Pan-like figure, a man who has little interest in the adult world and who enjoys the company of children for their purity of imagination. Belt Up’s trio of shows this year includes The Boy James about J.M. Barrie, so evidently themes of age and imagination transcend between the plays.
My inner ghoul was sated however by a full rendition of Jabberwocky, recited as the space was plunged into darkness and wreaths of smoke. This was hauntingly beautiful, and a better indication of Carroll’s surreal psyche and state of mind than a full doctor’s report.‘God loves animals, sinners and dreamers’, Carroll says softly; at once defending his retreat into dreams, and coming to terms with his own mortality. Fantastical, fanciful, enchanting.