Returning from general mania and sell out performances in 2015, Les Enfants Terribles’ immersive production of ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’ at The Vaults is surely a destined hit. And no wonder – with new sets, characters, and puppets added from the last run, this Alice is an improved version of an experience that many considered nigh-on perfect already.
Originally an anniversary celebration of Lewis Carroll’s seminal work, Les Enfants Terribles guide audience members through The Vaults – which have been transformed to represent a grittier wonderland – filled with fringe characters and entertaining scenarios.
The production – written, directed and produced by Oliver Lansley, James Seager and Emma Brünjes – is perhaps the peak of what immersive theatre can achieve without resorting to more extreme and experimental methods. The adventure begins under the majestic Leak Street graffiti tunnel – where it feels as if one is warping into another world. The Vaults has always exerted an ethereal pull on visitors with its imposing, hidden entrance – and, this sense of travel and transportation is central to the narrative experience. Continuing to the Launcelot street ‘Vaults Theatre’ entrance, theatregoers are plunged straight from industrial brickwork into a smoke-fogged, bright, and distinctly Lewis Carroll cocktail bar – where they check in for the experience – I would advise they indulge in one of the delectable tipples provided by Smith and Sinclair. Ordering a cocktail for the inevitable mad hatter’s tea party is also a must – this adventure just wouldn’t be the same without a slight alcoholic cloud.
This pre-show bar is just one of the signs that Les Enfants Terribles have put on one hell of a show. Complete with an extensive list of bespoke drinks, edible alcohol, comfy and inviting surroundings, and a photo booth – not to mention an absolutely buzzing and packed atmosphere on press night – it truly is an example of a theatre group going above and beyond to provide something that excels what one can categorise as a ‘show’. It is more of an experience: something tangible that you can touch and feel.
A projected clock glows shimmering white on the wall, informing the participants of their imminent departure – at which point they are invited to walk through a giant set of wooden doors, through a courtyard covered by twisting wooden beams and into an immaculately constructed Victorian room: a low-ceilinged, multi-purpose cornucopia of photograph development, musical instruments, old books, and mirrors. Such is the complexity and accuracy of the set that guests are invited to explore and discuss their surroundings for quite some time before some special effects and animatronics (you may need to duck) start the adventure for real – and the audience are invited to traverse a tunnel made entirely of book pages (it’s awe inspiring) to begin their quest.
For a 90-minute experience, visitors get a hell of a lot done. From splitting up into four suits by making the choice of whether to ‘eat’ or ‘drink’, and then by being assigned suited playing cards – the audience is quartered. This means there are four different adventures going on in each group which converge at various points in the show.
The story itself is intriguing, but can be weaker depending on the allocated suits. Red cards play the queen’s favoured population – the aristocracy and the government spies; and the black cards play the oppressed underdogs – plotting to overthrow the queen and her oppressive regime. However, within each of these suits there is generally a weaker option. For instance, myself and my companion were both black suits – although one of us was directly involved in said coup, and the other was steadfastly confused about what exactly was going on until the very finale. This doesn’t necessarily destroy the show and what it’s trying to achieve – but does make for a slightly incoherent experience. Nevertheless, the whole plot does reveal itself in an excellent courtroom conclusion that has the audience enraptured. And the central narrative involving Alice herself is both mysterious and interactive enough to create an enigma that lasts the full 90 minutes.
But, of course, the main attraction of the experience for punters is the attention to detail and the level of immersion present. Like a 1950s freak show, ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’ is all about the sheer spectacle and wonder that comes with standing in the midst of immaculately produced art. The list of scenarios and sets that audience members are put into is far too long to mention in this review. From a mirrored carousel/zoetrope, to a mushroom forest made of umbrellas, to a dark thick wood, to a smoke-filled tent, and an actual foul-smelling pond; Wonderland has it all.
There are, however, a few locations that stand out in my mind as being particularly excellent. The first is the initial ‘eat me’ or ‘drink me’ room, which comes in the form of a brightly-painted version of one of those rooms where walking from one end to the other causes an illusion of growing or shrinking (you know what I mean). The second is a strobed blue room of around 30 doors – each of which has a magnificent special effect behind it (not limited to ‘electric shocks’, spewing foam all over the room, acting as an accordion, and being filled with consecutively smaller and smaller mini-doors). The third is the circus-cum-nursery setting of the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum acrobatics show, resembling an intimate big top. And the fourth is the centrepiece of the show – the tea party. A beautifully lit, and absolutely massive hallway – adorned with a broken clock – is occupied by what appears to be the derelict remains of a greenhouse; all smashed glass, antique furniture, and weathered wooden tables; with a giant boiler that spews tea standing at one end. It is here where the different parties reconvene for the first time, and chat over a (very) alcoholic beverage served in a tea cup whilst a whirlwind of craziness rackets all around them. Of course, these rooms were those experienced by me on my run through – but given the stories I’ve heard from others, this is only a fraction of what has been installed in the arches. It truly is a show that deserves a repeat viewing.
The acting, similarly, is of a mind-blowing standard. The characters are so heavily clad in make-up, and actors play different roles, that unfortunately I am unable to place faces to names – but suffice to say all are excellent. From the White Rabbit to the ‘designated high cards’ of suits that guide the participants around the warren of tunnels, all of the characters are believable and mostly likeable (those pesky hearts are too stuck up for their own good). Special mention should go to the Mad Hatter and the March Hare for their incredibly energised, bizarre, and hilarious performance at the ‘tea party’ sequence – performing magic tricks, physically interacting with guests, and running over the wooden tables shouting and performing with unbelievable zest. It truly felt as if we were experiencing an unhinged hallucination – though that was likely aided by the rather high alcohol content.
Yet acting is not all Les Enfants Terribles are concerned with. Throughout ‘Alices Adventures Underground’, the audience is treated to a smorgasbord of different performance techniques. There’s puppetry – with the Cheshire cat, caterpillar, and humpty dumpty but to name a few represented by excellently realised and beautifully constructed puppets. There is also a good deal of physical theatre and gymnastics, as actors hang upside down, brush and massage viewers, contort into unimaginable shapes, and slink around the space skilfully. And, in a feat of ingenuity, the Tweedle Dee/Tweedle Dum sequence of the show involves two acrobats attached to a revolving pole, so that they flip, twist, and turn over the participants who sit millimetres below them. Despite the practical concern, this scene is purely magical.
And, indeed, if that wasn’t enough, we emerge triumphant into yet another bar – this time with circulating actors and creatives, live entertainment, and another cocktail bar. Grab a drink, take a seat, re-acquaint yourselves with friends who have undergone a different experience, and enjoy the surreal ambiance of this Wonderland before emerging once again into the graffiti-clad tunnel from whence you came. It’s quite the shock, but, it’s quite the experience. Highly recommended.
Featured image: The Telegraph.