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Review: Alice In Wonderland at Grosvenor Park ***1/2

Before Chester’s Storyhouse opened, Grosvenor Park was the main stage for theatre in the city – albeit a low tech, wood bark stage, open to the elements Globe-style.

But after launching the initial season indoors in their nifty new thrust stage auditorium, the team behind Storyhouse have now ventured outside again for the summer season.

There’s always something of a friendly, festival atmosphere, a collaborative spirit, on and about the terraces of the open air theatre in the park. The picnics come out, the corks pop. Occasionally the waterproofs go on and the umbrellas go up, although happily not on this Sunday afternoon.

Alice in Wonderland, writer Glyn Maxwell and director Derek Bond’s spirited and enjoyable adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s surreal flight of fancy, is the only non-Shakespeare offering transferring this season, and the acting ensemble comes to it direct from Maxwell’s equally spirited version of The Beggar’s Opera.

It’s colourful – thanks to the giant wooden letters that haphazardly spell out Wonderland, part of designer Jess Curtis’ portable set, and as crazily frustrating as Carroll’s original, with its nonsense verse and deliberate confusion.

The titular heroine is actually two Alices – mind and body splitting when faced with the prospect of growing up, or remaining a carefree child. Alice (Rebecca Birch) the mind goes down the rabbit hole to escape the reality of big school, while Alicia (Anna Leong Brophy) the body stays in the ‘real’ world to face just that, learning ‘everything’ along the way.

Alice’s first half adventures throw her in to the path of characters that audience members young and old know well, but which are at times given an unexpected twist; Daniel Goode’s snooty circular Humpty Dumpty, Tom Connor’s White Rabbit and Mad March Hare, Alex Mugnaioni’s Mad Hatter, and Caolan McCarthy’s Cheshire Cat – Maxwell’s jolly wheeze being he’s a feline with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the county.

Rather like Peter Pan, characters in the ‘real’ world also take on different personas in the imagined one. Thus Charlotte Gorton is both Alicia’s mother and a gym mistress Duchess, while Jonathan Dryden Taylor appears as a doctor and the Caterpillar.

Tigerlily, Violet and Rose and, above, Tom Connor as the Mad March Hare. Photos: Mark McNulty

The action spins in and out of the theatre-in-the-round, often heralded by the ensemble on an assortment of musical instruments. Some of the best scenes involve the Mad Hatter’s chaotic tea party, while the musical ensemble makes an effective and disquieting Jabberwocky.

Cast members interact beautifully and amusingly with the audience members (a large proportion of them children), although frustratingly, there are a number of occasions the dialogue is lost when some actors have their backs to sections of the crowd.

Similarly, the musical volume seems rather thin. It may have worked indoors, but outside the volume needs to be dramatically increased.

Alice in Wonderland runs until August 20. Tickets from the website HERE.

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