“What's the use of a story with no pictures?” asks the precocious heroine of Anthony Neilson's new adaptation of Lewis Carroll's mind-expanding classic, programmed as the Lyceum's Christmas show this year. Wise beyond her years, young Alice's statement accidentally pinpoints the power of the sort of theatre which Neilson has made his own. Carroll's logic-jumping fantasia is the perfect starting point for such a theatrical philosophy, as Neilson's own production of his play presents a vivid world of cartoon grotesques and Twilight Zone style projections as Alice takes her hallucinatory trip down the rabbit hole.
It begins, however, in a sunny English idyll, where Jess Peet's Alice can barely stay awake for her outdoor lessons. Having been ushered in by a wheezy organ refrain as miniature hot air balloons hang over the circular lawn below, the moments up to Alice seeing a giant rabbit walking towards her are but a prologue to what follows. The opening song and the play's title lowered down above the audience form a kind of opening credits sequence to the story.
One probably shouldn't dwell too much on the heightened psychology of everyone who Alice stumbles into, but it's hard not to notice that the time-obsessed White Rabbit probably has OCD. Isobel McArthur's Dormouse is almost certainly narcoleptic, and Zoe Hunter's hookah-smoking Caterpillar has something of a guru complex. Tam Dean Burn's crazed Hatter and Gabriel Quigley's spoilt demagogue Queen of Hearts speak for themselves in a series of sketch-like set-pieces, be it at the Hatter's out of control tea party or on the croquet field.
There is much fun to be had with the wordplay that results from such encounters on Francis O'Connor's ever changing set, while Nick Powell's score is tinged with faux psychedelic undertones. Making her professional stage debut, Peet presents Alice as a strong, uber-smart independent woman in waiting.
As the title of the play is lowered down once more to indicate the show's closing credits, the story's over-riding themes of life being a dream conjured up by the true child-like power of the imagination takes a turn for the anarchic. As the cast run riot through the audience, it becomes one more leap of faith in a thoroughly modern but still authentic Alice.
The Herald, December 5th 2016