There’s always bound to be something exciting about a play which begins with the warning, “contains fake nudity” especially when that play is a student-written interpretation of one of your favourite novels. That’s not to say that I wasn’t a bit nervous, too. Writing any text based on a well known classic is bound to be a swamp of potential mistakes, and I have seen plenty fall in the mire. “Modern-day” depictions of Macbeth with the witches dressed in bondage, an abysmal film by the name of I, Frankenstein, and even a production of The Wizard of Oz told from Toto’s perspective. What I wanted to see in Joe Willis’ Down the Rabbit Hole, was a play which “played” on Lewis Carroll’s famous story, neither sticking to it too closely, nor straying too far.
And that’s exactly what I got, even before the play had begun. Walking into the barn, I think we all felt that we had fallen into the writer’s vision. The UV paint on the walls, which shouted statements such as, “Beware the Jabberwocky” and “Kuda Sucks” neatly signposted the way that the play itself would juxtapose the world of wonderland with the contemporary world of clubbing and drugs, emphasised by the song, “Off with your Head” which reverberated through the Barn. In terms of props, the layout was minimalist- a set of cubicles in the middle of the room, and a sink to one side- but throughout the play I was impressed by the way in which the cubicles especially were manipulated for different purposes, featuring as toilets, windows for the queen’s “tarts” and a handy way to facilitate the entrances and exits of the actors. The use of the UV paint and strobe lighting alongside this minimalist setting, left room for the actors to move whilst also creating a sense of audience enclosure, creating an atmosphere which mirrored Alice’s drug-induced disorientation throughout the play.
The story revolves around a contemporary depiction of Alice as a Yorkshire teenager, two years after the traumatic death of her mother, and begins light-heartedly, with the female characters entering drunk into the girl’s toilets of a particularly trashy club. This satire of the “York Clubbing Experience” which included phrases such as, “I’m not that drunk” and, “before you have sex with Ron Weasley and all of his friends” was a strong and humorous way to involve the audience from the very beginning – especially considering that the actors resorted to scrambling over people on the tiered seating in a show of meta-theatre. The plot however, soon turns dark. Alice argues with her sister and is left alone in the toilets, dwelling on her mother’s death and her own shortcomings, and finally taking another hallucinogenic, “The White Rabbit” which provokes both real and imagined experiences which constitute the rest of the play.
This episodic structure, in which other characters enter and leave Alice’s dream state, allowed for quite a large number of smaller roles within the production. Whilst these roles were of smaller stature, they were played with consistent gusto and comedic awareness – of particular note were Marcus Crabb’s wonderfully weird depiction of “Hatter” Alex McLintock’s “Tweedledave” and Kwame Boateng’s “Catterpillar”. A further consequence of this structure however, was the particularly challenging role of Alice, who must remain on stage permanently and carry the plot whilst simultaneously portraying herself as “drugged-up” for the duration of the play. Tara Geraghty certainly rose to this challenge. Of particular merit was her use of contrast, juxtaposing Alice’s childish vulnerability, especially in the scenes where she imagines that her mother is still alive, with her desire to grow up and experience the adult world. In an evening of contrasts, the play mixed slapstick comedy with a deeper engagement with some more troubling questions, such as the nature of grief and the struggles of growing up – issues which Carroll addresses in Wonderland as well. Much like his famous riddle, “what is the difference between a raven and a writing desk” which he claimed, “had no real answer at all” Joe Willis’ Down the Rabbit Hole was a thought provoking play which raised as many questions as it answered, but was, overall, an obvious success.