Review: Alice in Wonderland, St Paul’s Church

“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then”

Iris Theatre’s 2013 summer season got off to a cracking start with a viscerally imaginative take on Julius Caesar and much of the same company has stayed put to present the more family-friendly, but no less inventive semi-musical take on Alice in Wonderland. The audience fall into the rabbit hole as soon as we arrive, ending up in a Victorian fairground where a number of sideshow acts entertain the crowd until a young lady comes tumbling through behind us and the play begins. That girl is of course Alice but she has lost her identity and in order to try and reclaim it, she has to journey deep into Wonderland, meeting all kinds of strange creatures and fulfilling all manner of tasks to try and help her on her way.

The varied grounds of St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden serve as an excellent starting point for director Andrew Lynford to let his imagination run wild with Andy Pilbeam-Brown’s set design and Emma Devonald’s costumes evoking a near-Gothic Victoriana which feels wonderfully lively. And key to this is the frequent encouragement of audience participation – so many of the younger members of the audience (and indeed some of the older) got to take part, whether in the dizzying madness of the Caucus race, the hilarious antics of a game of croquet or the simply delightful Mad Hatter’s tea party with its over-friendly dormouse. It is utterly charming and never loses sight of exactly who it is trying to entertain.


The flipside to this is that it does always possess a dramatic sharpness. The playing style occasionally veers to the overly broad, Candida Caldicot’s songs meander a little instead of advancing the story and some scenes – the Mock Turtle’s for instance – lack a real sense of purpose. But the sheer enthusiasm of a cast of seven throwing themselves whole-heartedly into this most whimsical of worlds is near-impossible to resist. From an extraordinary turn as Brutus, it is refreshing indeed to see David Baynes’ anarchic March Hare and screechily camp Queen of Hearts, likewise Nick Howard-Brown’s Mad Hatter finds profundity as well as playfulness.

And at the heart of it all is Laura Wickham’s Alice – her innocent wonderment plays as a great foil to the madhouse in which she finds herself, but also grounds the more poignant aspects to her journey – the search for identity, what it means to know oneself, how the darker side of life cannot be avoided but can be dealt with – in a place of genuine truth. And as with Julius Caesar, the production transcends itself in its final moments, set inside the church, with a simply gorgeous tableau that is infinitely moving. 

The performance I attended was pleasingly full with children and they genuinely seemed to love it, and I love that I got to witness this. Too often (and more so than usual), press nights for family shows present a stolid audience who don’t, or won’t, respond in the way that the production deserves and that robs us all of an additional pleasure which really helps the show to fly so now is the ideal time to go. There’s only a few days left to fall down this particular rabbit hole though so hurry hurry, follow that white rabbit. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)

Programme cost: £3
Booking until 31st August

Review: Julius Caesar, St Paul’s Church

“Here is a mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome”

It starts off like Shakespeare meets Mad Max, but Iris Theatre’s inventive and contemporary reimagining of Julius Caesar at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden gradually unfurls a much more intelligent reading and builds into something infinitely more moving than Tina Turner atop the Thunderdome could ever hope for. In their fifth year of designing site-specific productions for this tucked away Central London venue, there’s a clear sense from Iris of the possibilities and practicalities of putting together a piece of gently immersive theatre that genuinely works but this has been paired here with a deeply considered retelling of the play that surely makes it one of the Shakespearean highlights of the summer.

Daniel Winder has translated this Roman epic into a near-future dystopian version of the world, with riot shields and a dubstep soundtrack setting the scene for the opening as a cast of seven pull us into a tale of political struggle and violent betrayal that sadly rings true in any period of time. The shaven hairstyles and lean muscularity of the rebels, led by Nick Howard-Brown’s manipulative Cassius and David Hywel Baynes’ more nobly-inclined Brutus contrast well against the beefier aesthetic of the neo-imperialist rulers, Matthew Mellalieu’s Caesar and Matt Wilman’s outrageously stacked Mark Anthony. And as they all fight for the hearts and minds of the people, as well as reconciling their sense of duty with the love they bear for those closest to them, the production successfully negotiates the ambiguity that often accompanies the corrupting nature of power and the journey to seek it.  
It’s a boldly ambitious vision and one which is forcefully delivered. Mellalieu captures the swaggering arrogance of the title character, Howard-Brown’s Cassius is beautifully spoken as he lays the plans for Caesar’s seizure in motion and Daniel Hanna excels as a feral Casca, proudly blood-soaked throughout. But David Hywel Baynes is sensationally good as Brutus, increasingly overtaken by remorse and touchingly concerned with how his actions will impact those around him. That includes us as members of the audience, variously called upon to be cup-bearers, mourners at Caesar’s tomb, lords in the Senate, the baying masses in the Forum. But this is participatory theatre of a moderate nature, warmly involving rather than leaving anyone feeling exposed and in the various setting in and around St Paul’s Church and its grounds, it is a clever way of making the crowd work as part of each scene.

Changing Cinna the Poet’s fate may outrage purists but having Laura Wickham’s brutalised silent witness a key presence in the climactic scenes becomes almost unbearably moving, the focus being on the quiet desperation of war espoused by Brutus rather than the grandiose machismo of Caesar himself. And by the time the production’s final grace note is played as we’re seated in the church itself, only the flintiest of hearts could remain unmoved. Filipe Gomes’ sound design, directed by Candida Caldicot, is a little over-insistent at times though, too often striking boldly where a sense of subtlety might serve better as the setting and performances offer more than enough atmosphere to make this a most striking piece of theatre.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)

Booking until 26th July

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Journey’s End, Richmond Theatre

“It feels like we’re just generally waiting around for something to happen”

Set towards the end of the First World War in the trenches at St Quentin, Journey’s End is a compelling account of life in an officer’s dugout written by RC Sherriff who drew on his own experience there to create this piece of powerfully timeless drama. Never moving from Jonathan Fensom’s tightly designed set, it focuses particularly on Captain Stanhope who is leading this group of officers in the days before the Germans launched one of their fiercest offensives as they reflect back on what has happened, battle through the grim realities of day-to-day life on the front line and contemplate the conflict that lies ahead.

David Grindley’s production was first seen in the West End in 2004 and is a masterclass in showing that less can be so much more when deployed with the devastating effectiveness that we see here. One of the play’s recurring themes is the corrosive effect of the endless waiting on the minds of soldiers and officers alike, so much so that one almost longs for something to happen, despite knowing that the order to the front line is an almost certain death sentence. So when that finally happens, the way that the audience is left to make their own conclusions about what is going on in the trenches above from the noise of artillery and bombs whilst watching an empty stage, especially when it is the fate of two of the main characters that lies in the balance, it is an almost unbearable moment. Gregory Clarke’s sound design is perfectly throughout, ever-present but rising to uncomfortable levels as the characters we’re coming to know repeatedly go up to face unimaginable peril above ground and the finale, with the final onslaught represented by a deafening wall of sound which literally shakes the theatre, is a moment of stirring horror that really does leave one stunned. Continue reading “Review: Journey’s End, Richmond Theatre”

Review: Romeo and Juliet, Actors Church Covent Garden

“Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night”

So my second Romeo & Juliet in a central London (but off-West-End) venue in a week but whilst this is a modern dress Romeo & Juliet, it wisely leaves alone from much else tinkering. Set in the grounds and gardens, and finally inside, The Actors Church otherwise known as St Pauls Church in Covent Garden, this is a fresh, thoroughly honest and intimate telling of this familiar tale by Iris Theatre which offers a beautifully direct connection to the material. Fierce from the outset, there’s bottling, punching and flick-knives by the dozen, the opening brawl leaves many of the cast spitting (fake) blood and covered in plasters and bandages for the rest of the show: there’s little holding back from the brutality of the violence endemic in this family feud. But likewise, there’s no hiding from the depth of emotion here as well; this production contains a pair of central performances in an utterly convincing portrayal of teenage lust and passion.

There’s a wonderful use of the nooks and crannies of St Pauls, a surprisingly calm environment enclosed on all sides by tall buildings and the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden. The audience is seated on benches for the longer scenes, but occasionally we wander to different areas to witness a rave in a garden complete with Bonnie Tyler dance routine, or snoop on the lovers in their hammock in a shaded corner, or in a brilliant moment, watch Juliet as she emerges in the window of one of the adjoining houses for the balcony scene. Then as we approach the final scene, we are invited into the church itself and it is a breathtaking moment: lit by hundreds of candles and a striking large blue neon cross, the air laden with incense, the bodies of Juliet and Paris laid on the altar, it is incredibly effective and atmospheric and demonstrates a superbly sensitive understanding of the opportunities provided by this venue. Continue reading “Review: Romeo and Juliet, Actors Church Covent Garden”