2017 is proving to be the comeback year for some of the titans in innovative children’s theatre. Pins and Needles’ adaptations of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas and The Bear are set to return in the winter, and – most exciting for me – Adventures in Wonderland will be playing all summer. This reimagining of the Lewis Carrol classic was cleverly constructed by Les Petits in The Vaults, under Waterloo Station, London. When we saw its inaugural run in 2015, I came away thinking it was possibly the best children’s theatre I’d ever seen.
Adventures in Wonderland is an immersive children’s performance aimed at 5-10 year olds. It runs in tandem with an adult version, Alice’s Adventures Underground, staged in the evenings. The updated show was similar to the original 2015 version, where Samuel Wyer’s elaborate, detailed set added just the right note of fusty Victorian decadence. Our first port of call was a room resembling a scruffy junk shop, with heaps of books, painstakingly hand-written notes, stuffed animals and a centrepiece of sepia photos, pegged up on lines above trays of developing liquid. It was the sort of place you could explore for hours. But after a few minutes we heard a girl’s voice calling for help….and then the adventure unfolded.
Entrance to the show is timed, with each audience split down the middle, into red or black ‘cards’. Depending on your card team, you either have to sample the ‘drink me’ potion and shrink to fit through a tiny door, or eat a jellied sweet and grow into a giant. This sequence, overseen by a White Rabbit with a freakish furry head and twitching ears, was a clever, convincing optical illusion. From then on, the teams were led by Card Guards down fur-lined corridors, out into forests of giant mushrooms and through tunnels of books. Along the way we met a collection of Lewis Carrol’s famous characters, like Humpty Dumpty, and the Cheshire Cat. Finally, we ended up in a colossal room – the Vaults’ imposing arched ceiling put to good use – where the Mad Hatter held his grotesque tea party. We emerged, blinking, to sample flamingo croquet and cocktails served in jam jars.
Two years on, the team of Oliver Lansley, Anthony Spargo and Emma Earle had honed the performance to make it more child-focused than the original. There was a better balance of grotesque and whimsy. I still wouldn’t have taken my easily-spooked five year-old daughter into this Wonderland. For her, the dark corridors, off-kilter characters and eerie settings would have been too much. But my seven year-old son was infected with the infectious merriment of the actors, who seemed to have more fully embraced their inner children. The Queen of Hearts, “wasn’t as scary” this time around. Less shouty, BabyJane-esque drag act, more flirtatious take on Theresa May.
I did miss the original TweedleDum and TweedleDee. In 2015 they wore huge puppet heads and mischievously squirted the audience with water pistols. This time round, they were played as two stripey Welsh (!) sumo wrestlers, who proceeded to fight in a segment that went on for just a little too long. Otherwise, though, the production was perfectly paced, with none of the rushed feeling that came through in 2015.
Still the best performance for kids? I’d say so.
Adventures in Wonderland is at the Vaults, near Waterloo Station, London, until Sunday 3 September 2017. Tickets are £26.50 (adults), £15.50 (children) or £71 (four people: two adults, two children). We were given tickets for the purpose of this review. All views are my own.
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