The Other Room at Porter’s, Cardiff, Thu 10 December 2015
It started with a kiss. Two, in fact, as the audience were led into the space, through a litter tray and into the world of difficult|stage’s Alix in Wundergarten. Warmly greeted by the actors in a rather grotty radio studio festooned with tacky Christmas decorations, we soon realised that as an audience we were not merely observers but integral to the action. Based on the premise that we were ‘lucky winners’ of a competition to witness a live radio recording of Alice in Wonderland, the resulting ninety minutes of utter mayhem is a dazzling theatrical exploration of the gulf between reality and fantasy, using the leitmotif of Alice’s refrain “Who in the world am I?” as a reminder that identity is a fragile construction up for grabs.
The play follows the much travelled dramatic tradition of theatre about theatre and actors playing actors, stylishly combining the classic complexity of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author with the farcical knockabout of Frayn’s Noises Off. It takes a really good actor to play a bad one and in this the cast excel, as the four actors assembled begin the recording session with the usual nervous stalking of each other, polite greetings hiding the web of insecurities and vanity that the play delightfully brings to the surface.
Each actor is portrayed as a certain ‘type’ that anyone familiar with the theatre world will instantly recognise: Nick (Richard Elfyn), the old lag whose name dropping is punctuated with him breaking into showtunes from Les Miserables whilst desperately trying to flog his CD; the RADA trained Toby (Arthur Hughes), whose ‘disability’ becomes the source of staggeringly un-PC jokes; Gael (Dean Rehman), whose method-acting training at the Stella Adler Conservatory makes for a far too intense approach to voicing the Caterpillar; and finally the ingénue Elin-Rose (Louisa Marie Lorey), star-struck and out of her depth. Completing the cast is the manic director Fabian, played by the writer of the piece François Pandolfo, whose gradual deterioration into hysterical madness as the recording session descends into chaos is just brilliantly executed. The on-going theatre jokes cut close to the bone at times, and there is a very funny running gag on mobile phones going off in the audience. Whilst the first half of the play is a clever, knowing take on theatrical traditions, the second half travels in an entirely different, surreal direction that takes us towards a re-working of Alice in Wonderland as a Cold War fable.
The comic timing is exquisite as the play maintains a ferocious pace throughout, artfully directed by Angharad Lee. Paul Towson’s lighting design complements the schizoid nature of the piece, as does the set design by Carl Davies, which utilises every square inch of the compact, claustrophobic space. As the performance gallops towards its utterly implausible conclusion, we are reminded of the Cheshire Cat’s assertion to Alice that she must be mad “or you wouldn’t have come here.” You would be mad indeed if you missed this incisive, brilliant show.
words ALEX WREN, photos AENNE PALLASCA