Within the first five minutes of the show, Alice (Nkhanise Phiri) experiences every young Londoner’s worst nightmare: getting lost on the Tube. Following a heated argument with her mum, she rushes into a train carriage just as the doors are closing. Separated and alone, Alice is transported into a weird and wacky Wonderland where she meets creatures named after Tube lines, raps about “Alice-tocracy” and battles the Queen of the Line.
This Brixton House production is unique from the get-go. The set is innovative and cleverly designed by Shankho Chaudhuri. The stage is divided horizontally by a Tube carriage, with each end resembling a tunnel. Notices resembling authentic TFL signs hang above the audience, except they reference Lewis Carroll’s world, with one assertively stating “Jabberwocky is always watching”. Some of the Tube carriage seats have secret compartments and there are trap doors in the most unlikely places. The actors traverse along the stage, using all the space and ensuring everyone can see the action. The only downside is the cramped seats. Brixton House manages to emulate the Tube experience a bit too well: the audience are packed in like commuters in rush hour. And for one hour and forty minutes, it’s a very uncomfortable experience.
The characters, however, are not what you expect. Rather than the March Hare, the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse at a tea party, there is Pigeon (Khai Shaw), Rat (Rosa Garland) and Nose (Will Spence) at a coup meeting. The leader of the gang is Tube driver, Chatter (Toyin Ayedun-Alase), who is desperate to regain control of the ceaseless train and explains multiple schemes through rapping. Throughout the play, Alice is introduced to more and more bizarre characters, but it wasn’t until the interval that I realised that this production only has a cast of five and the actors are doubling-up – sometimes tripling-up – as other characters. The various costumes and accents definitely fooled me!
Favourites of mine are the Rabbit and Hammersmith, both played by the humorous Shaw. Rabbit’s anxious energy is channelled into being an overworked employee. It is satisfying to see his journey from being reluctant to take annual leave, to talking about unions and organising strikes. Hammersmith, as the name suggests, carries a large hammer. Designed by Debbie Duru, his costume exaggerates his shoulders so much he looks like he is from Minecraft. Shaw plays Hammersmith with a very high-pitched voice, which had the audience in stitches, particularly when he threatened violence.
The highlight, though, is the Jabberwocky. Emerging from behind a veil of smoke with just red torches as eyes, it is simple but extremely effective. In one scene when searching for Alice, the red lights shine on the audience creating an eerie effect. The Queen of the Line’s instructions “see it, slay it, sort it” emphasise Alice’s impending danger.
When Alice and The Queen of the Line come head-to-head, a large platform slowly lowers down from the ceiling and the two battle on it. This exciting sequence is great fun to watch, even if a little clunky. The dialogue that follows shows Phiri and Ayedun–Alase’s range as they cover serious topics in a genuinely moving way.
Although the Tube station puns are relentless (there are 102 of them), this is a perfect show for all ages. With a warm fuzzy ending, which is to be expected around Christmas time, writer Jack Bradfield’s Alice in Wonderland highlights the importance of community spirit right in the heart of Brixton. Going back home on the Victoria line felt weird though; I half expected myself to fall into a Wonderland too.
Director and Lead Writer: Jack Bradfield
Lyricist and Rapperturg: Gerel Falconer
Costume Designer: Debbie Duru
Set Designer: Shankho Chaudhuri
Alice In Wonderland plays at Brixton House until 31 December. Further information and bookings can be found here.