Studio Theatre, Chickenshed Theatre, London; October 24, 2014
As part of their 40th anniversary celebrations, Chickenshed has revived its production of the musical, “Alice on the Underground”, written and directed by Chris Bond (who wrote the play that was adapted by Steven Sondheim for his opera “Sweeney Todd”) and the company’s own Paula Rees, accompanied by music from Jo Collins and Dave Carey.
I was expecting something light and whimsical with pastel colours and was shaken awake by the opening scene in a council flat in which Alice and her siblings wake up to find their single parent Mum, Carol, has had a one night stand with a gross Elvis impersonator. He gets a strong number looking forward to a big breakfast, then before getting the chance to get back to bed, is unceremoniously shown the door. In the melee, Alice disappears, told that her girlish ways are too young for a 14-year old and with her much-loved white rabbit doll confiscated, the harsh environment is proving too much to bear.
We follow Alice though her wanderings on the Underground as she meets some 40 characters played by the four actors and four musicians who put their instruments aside for several roles. The narrative races along with plenty of good songs – over 95% of the text is sung – inspired costumes, much humour and skilled choreography and movement direction by Rachel Yates which enhances the action. The myriad of characters are deftly sketched even in their brief time on stage. Gavin May as the White Rabbit shows us some great pole dancing and back flips; Belinda McQuirk lustily sings country and western; Rachel Yates is outstanding as Alice’s Mum and a drug dealing Jack of Hearts. At the calm, yearning centre of the action is Alice played with touching vulnerability by Emma Cambridge. Emma has Down’s syndrome and it says much for her resolve and the Chickenshed ethos that she has achieved such success in this role.
It’s not all fun and games down in the Underground. Alice encounters prostitution, men who want to abuse her, and as the Jack of Harts readies a hypodermic needle, she is saved from drug addiction by the White Rabbit who dies in her rescue. She is searching for love and as her family and nosy neighbours scour the city for her, they find redemption in the realisation of how much they miss her. At the finale she returns with all forgiven and we all breathe a sigh of relief that she is out of danger.
With never a dull moment, “Alice on the Underground” has great vitality and heart but also addresses serious social issues in an unpreachy way, underpinned by fine performances from all the cast. Although written ten years ago, the problems underlined in the work are still with us and perhaps to an even greater extent as inequality grows in our society. I’m told there are possibilities for a wider audience for the show and I hope these materialise, as it deserves to be seen in the West End and beyond.