3.5 Stars

By Natalia Ristovska

 Children’s theatre is a mercurial little beast, quite often an exercise in self-torture and rewarding exhilaration all in the same breath. We love to see the young ones smile…their eyes lighting up with joy as they behold the wonder of the spectacle we present them with – while often wanting to throw those same very loud children (and their parents with their bloody mobile phones that are not on silent) down the aisles by the end of the production. Performing for the littlies is equal parts about entertaining, babysitting and gladiator sports at the best of times.

Surviving this gauntlet requires a level of finesse and energy that is rare. Children’s entertainers need to be damn good at their jobs, and even better at pretending that everything is fine and they absolutely want to be there. In the early morning. In the summer heat. During a raging pandemic.

It helps, of course, if they have the support of a good production – an interesting script, quality costumes and makeup, a setting that lends itself to the experience – all wrapped up in a magical package designed to enchant and enthral. To this effect, Glenn Elston’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is an adequate offering. Sitting with one foot in a 90s theatre restaurant formulae and the other in high-brow intellectualism, the show straddles the line between clever and tawdry, swinging like a pendulum between the two but never quite coming to rest on one or the other.

The show begins with the usual familiar characters – the White Rabbit (charmingly played by Olivia McLeod) and dear little Alice (Cassidy Dunn), and the addition of the lesser-known Bill the Lizard (the inimitable Dennis Manahan, who I am convinced was given this role just to have more well-deserved stage time). From there, we are thrust headlong into the madness that is Wonderland for an hour-long romp of nonsense and absurdity. That the script makes little sense is hardly the point – there are enough bright colours, interesting sets and characters (including some fabulous puppets) to keep the children interested. Mostly.

One of the production’s strengths is its interactivity – audience participation is a big feature of this show, and the cast are not afraid to speak directly to children and adults alike. The games are simple, fun and straightforward – the characters are cheeky and playful in their delivery, toying with their audience but always maintaining control. The only let-down in this instance was the original songs – not an earworm among them and lyrics a little too complex for many of the littlies to catch on quickly enough for a sing-along. Overall, I found them largely forgettable (apart from the Queen’s little ditty, because everyone loves a villain’s song), despite how well performed and sung they were by a clearly very talented cast.

The set was simple and attractive – it’s quintessential myriad of doors and windows perfect for pop up and puppet fun (and a rather terrifying moment with inflatable giant arms that I’m pretty sure traumatised a few of the younger audience members for life). The lighting was unobtrusive and lent itself to the magical nature of the setting rather than detracting from it. The sound…not so much – I don’t know if it was all turned up too loud or someone forgot to tell the cast that they didn’t have to shout every single line into their microphones, but there were very few quiet moments throughout – something to note for parents with kidlets who don’t deal well with too much noise. It was relentless.

Despite the shout-fest, the performances were still solid. As previously mentioned, a good children’s performer is equal parts an entertainer and crowd controller, and every single cast member had this balance down-pat. This was despite the fact that a lot of their characters did not get the focus that they deserved. In cramming the veritable mishmash of Wonderland into a shortened production, one has to inevitably surrender much to the editing gods – and what was sacrificed here was any semblance of linear story. Those who did not know the tale of Alice and her adventures would be hard pressed to have any idea what was going on, and many a fabulous character was whisked away all too soon (one child next to me spent the whole second half of the production asking “but where’s the CAT gone?”). Stand-out performances were Dennis Manahan as Hatter and Humpty (notably for his improvisation skills when interacting with his audience), and Madeleine Mason’s Queen of Hearts (who managed to be villainous and endearing at the same time…while on stilts!).

There were some moments of gold (a fabulous segment of alliteration and word games, a pretty fancy un-birthday table spread that cleverly turned into a court-room stand), some missed opportunities (the blow-up flamingos during the croquet game do not do a chorus line and I will forever be sad about this), and one or two cringe moments (it’s 2022, why are we still making pointless jokes about people being deaf?). Inevitably, there were also the parents walking in late with hordes of kids and distracting from the show, the crying child in the corner, the mobile phones that kept going off and kids that just wouldn’t sit still. The cast took it all in their stride and I don’t know if there are medals of honour for the show going on (and going on well) despite it all but there damn well should be. They barely missed a beat.

Having an opinion about a show when the arts and artists are struggling to work and survive – quite literally placing themselves in harm’s way to be able to pay their rent – seems grotesque, and there is a certain level of sado-masochism that comes with reviewing theatre during “unprecedented times.”

Is this the best version of Alice’s adventures through the LSD trip that is Wonderland you’ll ever see? Probably not. Should you see it anyway?

As our mate the Hatter (Dennis Manahan) quipped during one of the show’s audience participation segments…“We’re actors doing children’s theatre…there is no money.” Shakespeare it is not, but considering that these people are entertaining your kids for peanuts and risking a literal plague to be able to perform, the answer is a resounding yes.

Seriously, go and see the show.

And turn your bloody phones off.