Oxford in the summer is full of “Alternative” Theatre of various sorts, sometimes amateur, sometimes low key professional – students and theatre clubs doing fairly weird and avant-garde stuff; Shakespeare plays or classic plays in college gardens which are often magical because of their setting; and for this next couple of weeks, aptly enough, a new musical about the life of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Of course, famously, the books grew from tales that he told to the daughters of Henry and Lorina Liddell, especially Alice.
And therein lies the fascination of this musical. Every aspect of Alice’s story has roots in Dodgon’s life and experiences – and the text of this musical manages to link various episodes and characters that are famous from the books to the real life characters and events that inspired them. Also, the tale it tells of Dodgson’s love for Lorina Liddell and hers for him and what happens to their romance is touching and poignant.
How true is it? I’m not sure – but it has made me want to dig out a biography or two to find out.
Meantime, the musical itself is remarkably good and seriously stimuating of thought about the life of this unusual man: also touching on his passion for photography in its earliest days and his career as a mathematician, logician and Anglican deacon.
The production itself is an exemplar of a very fine kind of theatre magic – performed in a church hall, with all the action about three to six feet away from where you are sitting, very simple. The set-up is minimalist, but all the more thought-provoking for that. Like the Liddell girls when they were told the tales of Alice in the Christ Church Meadows that are just next door, virtually, to where you are sitting, you have to use your imagination. And you do.
There is some help from the occasional prop and from the Victorian costumes; but essentially this is an experience that is mildly Theatre of the Absurd and often Theatre of Alienation. It is clever, it is witty; and the songs, accompanied by Musical Director Greg Arrowsmith, on a piano and keyboard, are quite catchy.
The best Alienation Effect gimmick of the evening is splitting Dodgson into his public self, Charles Dodgson, and his inner creative self, his muse, “Lewis Carroll”. Both Stewart Briggs as Charles and Peter Watts as Lewis embody the two aspects of this personality very interestingly and make one think seriously about the inner and outer man. Peter Watts has a particularly strong voice and my one quibble is that Stewart Briggs probably needs to project a bit more strongly in the song.
Emily-Louise Tomlins is Lorina and conveys the fascination and the spirit of the woman as well as her ultimate defeat. The rest of the ensemble take on roles such as the Queen of Hearts, TweeleDee and TweedleDum, the Mock Turtle or the Walrus and the Carpenter as well as the characters on whom they are supposedly based, such as the dons at the High Table at Christ Church. Allan Scott-Douglas is sionister and scary as Henry Liddell, unctuous and ultimately tyrannical; and Jamie Sheasby is very good as the ambiguous Arthur Stanley.
It all works a treat – the story telling is very clear and it is quite easy to understand the conflation of the reality of Dodgson’s life with his imaginative creations. This is an evening of well-directed (by David Kettle) theatre of a simple and intimate variety and I found it very enjoyable. Full praise to the cast and creatives, not least Jane Bramwell, who wrote the book and lyrics based on a huge amount of knowledge about Alice and her origins; and Michael Brand, who has provided a totally serviceable, tuneful score.
This is a very pleasant way to spend an Oxford evening if you don’t expect the full West End paraphernalia and high concept production values of most musicals. In other words, accept “the given”, limitations of the show, its setting, its budget; the fact that in some ways it still needs to be tinkered with. If you can do that, you will find an evening of simple, direct and clever telling of the story of Dodgson and his creations.