“When I used to read fairy-tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one”

 

This quote comes from Alice’s musings in the fourth chapter of Alice in Wonderland. It also finds a home on the opening page of the programme for Les Enfants Terribles’ current production of Alice’s Adventures Underground at London’s Vaults Theatre, and for good reason. Produced by ebp, Emma Brunjes Productions, this show has been revised and refined since its sell-out run in 2015 and continues to push the boundaries of immersive theatre: giving its audience a feeling of what it would be like to take a tumble down the rabbit hole. Anthony Spargo has created a script (which runs to one hundred and eighty-six pages) that combines some of the best moments and characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through The Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) and uses them to create an entirely new story. The narrative experience of this production shares many similarities not only with the Alice books themselves, but also with nonsense literature more broadly, and this interaction with the broader themes of nonsense narratives serves to add an extra dimension to Alice’s Adventures Underground. The audience are not merely invited to the telling of this newly devised nonsense, but also required to participate in its unfolding. The result is that is that one is plunged, as Alice was, into the middle of a fairy tale, and one that has all the humour, mystery, and darkness of Lewis Carroll’s classic novels.

The plot and characters of Alice’s Adventures Underground are quite literally impossible for someone who has been through the Vaults’ Wonderland only once to describe in full. The choices you make once you start to move through this world have implications for which parts of it you explore, and which characters you meet along the way. I will not give any clues as to how to navigate the world that Les Enfants Terribles have created, but certain choices you have to make as the show progresses directly impact what you see and experience. One such decision leads to you being assigned as a member of one of the four suits of a deck of cards, with each suit pursuing their own unique adventure. This means that seeing everything this show has to offer would require four separate visits, and the unknown actions of the other suits always offer an uncertain context to your own adventures as you travel through this Wonderland.

To give an overall picture, the black suits (shout out to my fellow clubs) take part in an underground resistance movement against the despotic Queen of Hearts, who now rules over Wonderland and is seeking to establish rules and order where once there was “stuff and nonsense”, whilst the red suits work to aid her in this agenda. Whichever path you choose, however, it is central to the experience of this show that you as an audience member are actively involved in the events that unfold. The suit to which you are assigned will determine the narrative line you follow, but what number card you are within that suit will often also entail special roles for you to undertake personally to help drive the action forward. This never feels gimmicky – thanks in no small part to the excellent performances from the cast – and it is one of the aspects of Alice’s Adventures Underground that makes it a groundbreaking piece of immersive theatre.

The many narratives that Spargo’s script creates are made possible by an incredible set. The world that designer Samuel Wyer has created within the nearly thirty-thousand square feet of space that makes up The Vaults needs five miles of cable, eight projectors, and two hundred and three speakers to bring to life. This theatrical wonderland is astonishingly varied and visually astounding, especially considering it all came from the mind of one designer. In addition to this, the costumes and make-up sported by the actors, and the puppets that feature prominently in the show really help to bring this world to life. Les Enfants Terribles have made no concessions in their attempt to create this environment, and it really does have to be seen to be believed.

The audiences start to become acclimatised to the world of Alice’s Adventures Underground even before they begin their various adventures: the bar has been transformed into Wonderland, with a forest made of painted wooden panels, themed cocktails, and characters from the books wandering around and performing acrobatics – you can even play flamingo croquet if it takes your fancy. It is worth grabbing a drink here even if you’re not attending the show; but for those who are, spending some time in here before embarking on your journey gets you into the right frame of mind for what lies ahead. You can also pay here for a cocktail to be served to you when you get to the Mad Tea Party, which I would heartily recommend

The set and the writing come together in the very first room the audiences enter, and the two combine to illustrate how Alice’s Adventures Underground interacts with the rather intimidating literary canon that surrounds the Alice books. This opening setting takes the form of a chaotic and nonsensical depiction of Charles Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll’s) study. You are left for some time to explore in here, and around the room are facsimiles of early handwritten passages of his famous books. Although Spargo’s script creates several entirely new stories within Wyer’s actualised Wonderland, Alice’s Adventures Underground is in fact the title of Dodgson’s original manuscript, which was later adapted to become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.[1] The opening scene in the study is one of the few parts of the show that an entire audience experiences together before being split up into suits, and it feels that both the set (through the facsimile manuscripts) and the writing (through the play’s title) combine in this moment to give a nod to this fusty Victorian study in which an Oxford mathematician wrote a story for a little girl called Alice Liddell, before jolting the audience into the high-tech reimagining of that story a century and a half later.

Under the direction of James Seager, along with the ever-present influence of artistic director Oliver Lansley, Alice’s Adventures Underground achieves the remarkable feat of translating the experience of reading nonsense literature into a theatrical mode. I have previously written a more in-depth piece for culturised about the way in which interruptions help to maintain and shape nonsense narratives (see here), and in this production Les Enfants Terribles place you in the position of Alice in this regard: characters appear and disappear, impenetrable questions are answered, and you are ushered at a frenetic pace through a wide variety of nonsense scenarios.

The crucial aspect of this production that makes it feel like an effective translation of probably literature’s greatest nonsense world is that it is apparent that this Wonderland would exist with or without your presence: you are a visitor, but in no way a required one. In fact, as already mentioned, this is applies even amongst the individual audience with whom you enter the show. Many of this group – depending on their suit – will encounter characters you will never meet, while your adventure will equally remain a mystery to them. However, it is only when you add to this an appreciation of the number of people that experience the show every night that you start fully to appreciate the scale of this project. Every “performance” sees twelve different audiences travel through Alice’s Adventures Underground, which means at peak times six different audiences inhabit the space at the same time. Then take into consideration that every individual audience is divided into four suits, and you realise that there are up to twenty-four different adventures happening concurrently in this show.

At this point you may very legitimately ask how all this is possible without the various audiences bumping into each other, or without one of the actors being in the impossible situation of having to be in two places at once. My only response were you to do so would be simply: good question, I have no idea. The reality is that this production has clearly been so rigorously rehearsed that it runs like clockwork (which is even harder to fathom when you consider that each actor switches roles every four nights). To give an indication as to the challenge this poses the members of the cast, Bill the Lizard – who (if you are a black suit) takes a larger role in this show than he does in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – appears in five scenes across the show, which translates into sixty scenes a night and ninety on a Saturday, when there is also a matinee. In between these scenes the actor in question has to move between locations using a path that is not currently occupied by any of the various audiences currently travelling through the show, and the entire cast have to be ready to improvise at any moment should an audience react unexpectedly and threaten to throw the timing of the show off.

As a piece of theatre, Alice’s Adventures Underground is organised chaos with the emphasis on “organised”, and this is another aspect that connects it to Carroll’s books. As mentioned above, it is my belief that nonsense narratives, to make them distinct from chaotic gibberish, rely on an underlying logic or process which is subverted in the form of interruptions: “you can’t by definition interrupt chaos”.[2] This production creates such a framework, not only within its various plots but also through this physical management of such a large number of people in such an innovatively designed space. It’s only really once you’ve been ejected from the show’s Wonderland back into the bar and you start to talk to other audience members who have been a part of different adventures that you start to understand exactly where you have been for the past hour and a half.

This is the reason why I believe Alice’s Adventures Underground to be a crucially important production in the context of immersive theatre. It is entirely possible that in the very recent past, snobbery around this form would have led many people to refer to a production like this as an “experience” rather than a piece of theatre, but I struggle to believe that anybody who has seen this show would do so. In Alice’s Adventures Underground, Les Enfants Terribles and ebp have created a play that is wondrous to be inside, almost infinitely perplexing if one attempts to understand, and leaves you wanting to go back to see what else you might find. In short, they have created a fantastic piece of nonsense.

 

Alice’s Adventures Underground is showing at The Vaults Theatre until the 23rd of September. For information and tickets see here.

 

[1] Dodgson even illustrated Alice’s Adventures Underground himself. A wide selection of scans from the manuscript, which resides at the British Library, can be found here: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/alices-adventures-under-ground-the-original-manuscript-version-of-alices-adventures-in-wonderland

[2] David Hillman, “Introduction”, The Book of Interruptions. (eds) David Hillman and Adam Phillips, (Bern: Peter Lang): 10