mad hatter

White Rabbit, Tweedle Dum and Dee with, centre, the totally Mad Hatter.

 Pictures: John James and  Emma Trimble

Alice in Wonderland

The Old Rep, Birmingham


Alice is not only in Wonderland and through the looking glass, but wandering around the less familiar haunts of the wonderful Old Rep in Station Street with her three daughters.

And if all that sounds a bit nonsensical then that is perhaps because it is in this fast paced, slick production of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy adventure stories bundled together with a collection of bonus features.

For a start Alice is no longer a young girl but a mum, and a mum with plenty of practice as she has three daughters about the same age she was when she first ventured into the white rabbit’s burrow.

The Birmingham Ormiston Academy has four casts, appropriately Spades, Hearts, Clubs and Diamonds appearing on different days and on Press night it was Hearts designated to run the gauntlet of the sharpened quills of the critics – and what a splendid job they made of it.

This is a student production, which we will get out of the way from the start, because a casual observer would never have guessed it. It is slick, pacy, has some fine and well executed choreography (Artistic Director Steve Elias), catchy songs and a cast full of enthusiasm and no little talent. In short, if  no one told it was a student show, you would think no more than it was a young cast. It is that good.

alice and children

Alice and her daughters

Holly Katabalwa gives us the motherly Alice, not easy to pull off when you are the same sort of age as your three supposed daughters, Annie, Emily and Lottie, played by Emma Painter, Holly Rolfe and Abbie Dixon. Holly also has a fine voice when she is allowed to show it.

The daughters want a story and, with everyone sitting comfortably, Alice begins only to be interrupted by a frantic White Rabbit (Lena Bettles), who races around the stage from beginning to end looking a her watch, telling everyone it, whatever it is, is running late and we are never quite sure if it is the duchess or the Queen who is going to be really, really annoyed.

Along the way we meet the flamboyant Mad Hatter, a suitably loony Dean Rickhards, and his teatime guest the March Hare, a hyperactive and totally loopy leporine in the hands, and floppy ears of Aiden Halliday. They treated us to a song which seemed to have broken away from the Convoy school of music.

Here we also come across the Dormouse, or we do when Keira Montford manages to stay awake. Who would have known that Lewis Carroll found his Dormouse around here, somewhere around Tipton from the accent. A lovely performance and one of the favourites of my grandsons, aged six and ten.

cheshire cat

A deconstructed Cheshire Cat

In this journey we meet Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, Molly Haines and Lilly Holland who gave us a rattle battle and a sort of Cockney knees up song – and full marks to whichever of the pair lost her hat and had it dangling round her neck for half the song and dance, carrying on as if that is just how it had been rehearsed and no problem at all. An old trooper already in one so young.

There is also the cantankerous and pepper obsessed cook, played by Katie Hill, who you suspect could start an argument in an empty room, as well as the Cheshire Cat, or at least bits of the feline star with Madeleine Atkinson as the grin and voice and a couple from the mixed bag of characters in the ensemble as the eyes, all displayed on three painted parasols – clever stuff.

There are some lovely lines in Toby Hulse’s script, full of nonsense with my favourite line coming when the two, five and seven of spades, Aimeé Farmer, Poppy Parker and Eve Wallace, busily painting white roses red, were told they were just cards . . .

But this is Alice in Wonderland which means the Duchess, played by Taskin Meyzin, has a loud and brash say in things as she whacks hedgehogs around with flamingos used as croquet sticks.

Off with their head, the usual greeting from the Queen of Hearts

And eventually we encounter her madge herself, the Queen of Hearts running her daily trials where everyone is guilty until they are . . . well they are just guilty even if their crime is being guilty of not being guilty, with the punishment beheading, which, apparently can happen to you on a regular basis in Wonderland , and if that sounds like nonsense then that is probably because that is exactly what it is.

But, after all that is what Alice’s adventures were all about and BOA have just added a few nonsensical twists to keep you on your toes.

The leads stand out but there is excellent support from the ensemble who take on all manner of roles and impress with their timing and efficiency in changing sets on the go. They also impress in dance numbers, not the simplest steps but all done with a light touch and admirable unison – you could have been watching any professional cast if you didn’t know – there are times when the only difference between professional and amateur performances is the simple criteria of whether you are paid or not.

Steven Alan Jones’ lyrics, music and orchestration gave us a mix of styles and catchy tunes while James Latham’s set was bright and colourful and a lesson in simplicity with excellent costumes designed by Neil Hughes and created by Leanne Fitchett more than looking the part.

The result of all this nonsense is a family show with much to admire and nothing to frighten the horses. As it’s a family show perhaps the last word should go to my grandsons, by now experienced theatre goers thanks to a reviewing grandfather. Full of Cheshire Cat smiles at the end, they declared it “really good” and who am I to disagree. To 17-12-21.

Roger Clarke


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