REVIEW: Alice in Wonderland, Poltergeist Theatre (Brixton House)

Most people will be familiar with Alice in Wonderland, whether their frame of reference is the 1951 Disney cartoon, the 2010 Tim Burton live action version or Lewis Carroll’s original 1865 novel. This beloved children’s book has also sparked many a stage adaptation, with the whimsical storyline well suited to creative interpretation. Carroll’s initial manuscript was entitled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, so where better to set a stage show than on the tube? Playing at Brixton House this Christmas is a gloriously chaotic take on the classic tale, filled with quirky characters, rap battles and more tube puns than you can shake an Oyster card at. (102 of them to be precise – not that we’ve counted – although that’s definitely the sort of thing we would have done if producer, Poltergeist Theatre hadn’t handily tweeted it for us!)

Written and directed by Jack Bradfield, Alice in Wonderland brings the classic story bang up to date, setting it in modern day Brixton. Brixton underground station to be precise, where 11 year old Alice (Nkhanise Phiri) is having a huge argument with Mum (Toyin Ayedun-Alase). Alice is a typical tween; she doesn’t want to go to Granny’s house, she doesn’t want to do her English homework (because Alice in Wonderland is a terrible story with a rubbish ending) and she is absolutely not holding Mum’s hand to get on the tube. In a fit of anger, Alice steps onto the train just as the doors close, leaving a distraught Mum alone on the platform. But instead of heading towards Walthamstow, Alice finds herself trapped on a train to nowhere, where everyone must stay in their own carriage and follow the Queen of the Line’s rules to avoid being thrown in the gap.

A black woman wearing a winter coat and carrying lots of shopping bags looking sternly at a young black woman dressed in a school uniform. From the image it appears that they are likely to be mother and daughter.
Alice and Mum. Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

It’s a fun adaptation which is brilliantly staged in traverse, giving the audience a real sense of being on the underground as soon as they step into the auditorium. Shankho Chaudhuri’s clever set also offers some fun surprises when Alice is thrown in the gap, and later does battle with the Queen of the Line on top of the train.

As she tries to find her way off the train, Alice encounters the sorts of passengers with whom seasoned tube travellers will be familiar, including commuters, ratted revellers and culture vultures. Of course we also come across Carroll’s classic characters, but not as we know them. The white rabbit (Khai Shaw) becomes a burntout businessman, Tweedledum (Will Spence) and Tweedledee (Rosa Garland) are squabbling football fans, the Queen (Toyin Ayedun-Alase) drives the train, and the Cheshire cat (Will Spence again) is a hacker who gets into her sound system.

Alerted to the presence of an overgrounder on her train, the Queen releases the Jabberwocky, sending Alice hurtling in search of a hiding place. Portrayed by red headlights which emerge from darkness and smoke, getting bigger as Alice runs away, the Jabberwocky is an incredibly effective moment which (almost 11 year old) Crotchet found genuinely scary. Unlike Alice, she was more than happy to hold Mummy’s hand until the danger was over!

It’s bonkers from the moment Alice steps on the train, but the nuttery ramps up a level when she’s tipped off by a tortoise (also Rosa Garland) about a tea party, for which she needs the password “Krapy Rubsnif” (read it backwards!) But there’s no Mad Hatter or March Hare in sight. Instead, we meet the ludicrous trio of rebels, Rat (Rosa Garland again), Pigeon (Khai Shaw once more) and Nose (Will Spence in his most ridiculous role, and sporting the most absurd of all the brilliant costumes designed by Debbie Duru). The gang are led by former train driver, Chatter (Toyin Ayedun-Alase) and have so far come up with 723 plans for getting rid of the Queen but implemented precisely none of them. So it looks like it’s up to Alice.

The plot rattles on at 100 mph until an encounter with the Queen’s guards (Circle, District and Hammersmith) results in the inevitable peril for Alice that signals the interval. After a short gap for refreshments (which you are allowed to carry in an open container on this version of the underground), we return to see Alice looking as low as the Northern Line. She may have got out of the gap but she’s never going to make it off this train. But with a little help from Cat she manages to face her fears and rally her co-passengers to break the circle they’ve been stuck in.

A man wearing a pink gimp suit with the nose cut out, with a flowery cardigan on top. Next to him is a man in a suit, with a scarf and bow tie and hat. He is holding a book, which a woman wearing a long leather jacket appears to be licking.
Nose, Pigeon and Rat. Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

Although it is a hysterically funny production for the most part, it’s not all mad; there are a number of very relatable underlying themes including commentary on the daily grind (with characters losing hope and turning into commuters), questioning authority, facing your problems and asking for help. The relationship between Alice and her Mum will likely bring back memories of adolescence for many in the audience, as well as surely resonating for those currently parenting pre-teens. (Appropriately, Crotchet rolled her eyes when she was told she was seeing Alice in Wonderland, questioning why her younger sister wasn’t seeing this “children’s show” instead. By the end, she was fully in agreement that it was definitely for 11 year olds. She also especially enjoyed the reference to 11+ Oyster cards given that Mummy happened to have ordered one for her that very day!)

The script is hilarious, brilliantly referencing the original story while feeling extremely fresh. The inclusion of rap (from lyricist and rapperturg, Gerel Falconer) also serves to make this a very appealing* production for young people. (*Millennial Mummy is too old and boring to use an appropriately 2022 term here, so feel free to replace “appealing” in your head with whatever terminology is currently used on TikTok to denote that something is cool.) It’s recommended for ages 7+ but is very well suited to older children and teenagers. Younger children might struggle to follow some of the references, but the fast-paced madness means that there is still lots to laugh at.

Overall, Alice in Wonderland is a lively and loopy production which which have audiences of all ages grinning like a Cheshire Cat. All aboard the Victoria Line towards Brixton.

Alice in Wonderland plays at Brixton House from 1 December to 31 December 2022. We received complimentary press tickets to the evening performance on 7 December.

Some utter nuttery befitting of the original text

Very modern (and distinctly Brixton) take on an enduring classic.