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: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Actors Church Covent Garden

“I shall do thee mischief in the wood…
‘Ay, in the town, in the temple…’”

Last July’s Romeo and Juliet at the Actors Church in Covent Garden was a real unexpected surprise in a summer that was full of productions of that play, site-specific theatre that genuinely worked with the idiosyncrasies of the venue and able to exploit them to their full advantage. This year Iris Theatre are putting on A Midsummer Night’s Dream as their main production for the summer, an early showing of which I caught this week, to see whether the magic could be recaptured with this, my most favourite of Shakespeare’s plays.

The venue is St Pauls Church, right in the middle of Covent Garden with its own secluded courtyard filled with trees and shrubbery, which lends itself well to the evocation of the Forest of Arden: Dan Winder’s fluid production places a strong connection with nature front and centre so that the fairies are closer to woodland sprites than the ballet-dressed moppets of old, fitting in perfectly to the grassy knolls, wildflower-strewn groves and secluded bowers, the steps of the church creating a more stately locations where needed. The audience follows the action around the grounds, though there’s only perhaps 2 moves in each half and there’s sufficient room for everyone at each place, sitting or standing – something which is not always the case in promenade productions. Continue reading “Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Actors Church Covent Garden”