Alice Underground – immersive theatre

Alice’s Adventures Underground, an immersive theatre experience performed by Les Enfants Terribles in the vaults under Waterloo, is simply bonkers, gloriously entertaining and not to be missed. Tickets from about £35.00, runs until 30 August 2015.

Eat me or drink me? That’s the decision we’re faced with as we step on to a dark, asymmetric stage that really does shrink narrower and lower the further back we go – we’re getting bigger! There’s a door to the left for those choosing drink me and another to the right for eat me.

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Being introduced to edible cocktails in the vaults bar 

Few in our group are choosing eat me (novelty edible cocktails made by Smith & Sinclair) and, as L and I already tried some edible gin + tonic cocktails (very perfumed) in the vaults bar earlier, we choose drink me – a vial of gin cocktail.

This low ceiling stage area is the fourth room – or  space – we’ve been in so far on this Alice Underground experience in the cavernous vaults underneath Waterloo.

Photography isn’t permitted. See some images here.

Our group – of about 60 people – was first led into a study or library filled with gravity-defying, leaning bookshelves and dusty old curiosities – letters, ornaments, pictures – where Alice appeared and spoke to us as a projection from behind a tall looking glass. Here, we met the March Hare narrator with his creepy over-sized rabbit head and massive pointy ears. On a table in the centre of the library, Alice’s image appeared on photographic paper ‘developing’ in dark room trays. Nothing was as it seemed. A curious adventure was unfolding.

When the dim lights went out, our only option was to leave through a door that took us along a narrow, bendy corridor completely wallpapered in open books with their central pages spanning and fanning in all sorts of shapes; spines stuck to the ceiling and walls (I want corridors like this – fire hazard or not – in my house when I grow up). Walls coated in literature, inches deep in stories. Spellbinding. And spine-binding.

From this corridor we’d entered a circular, rotating musical box room where spinning lights gave the feel of a merry go round (spinning or falling lower underground) before playing our part on the stage. Here, our large group (or mobile audience) divided.

EatMe_or_DrinkMe_002

Following the drink me story-line, L and I go along a dark trench (we hold on to one another as – for a short way – we can’t really see where we’re going) into a small, enclosed woodland space where we meet the barking mad Cheshire Cat, whose enormous head leaves its body and floats up high (excellent puppetry). Three puppeteers form the cat’s voice, saying the same lines together but slightly out of sync to create a singular but distorted, spooky voice.

Each room we enter represents a different element of Alice’s story (this year is the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground by Charles Dodgson, pseudonym Lewis Carrol – the original manuscript can be seen at The British Library). The set designs and interactions with characters are brilliantly done, making for a fabulous and utterly bonkers experience.

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Temporary permit to Wonderland
At this point, we each select a card and further divide according to suit. L and I are separated and I follow the the story-line for clubs. I hear someone moan about this, saying that they had chosen to come and do this with their friends and didn’t appreciate having to go on their own for a while. Whereas I think it heightens the suspense and excitement somehow. It is only for a short while (about five rooms) and is critical in advancing the story (which becomes apparent later).

Our small group (with club cards) is subjected to the loud, mad queen and the untalented cook at loggerheads in the kitchen; then watch two over-sized babies (Tweedledum and Tweedledee?) doing circus-like gymnastics – harnessed from the roof – in a nursery, before meeting the Knave of Hearts in the pantry. He  talks us through the provisions on the well stacked shelves, from mock turtle soup to a variety of jams (there’s something of David Walliams in his comedy) and confides in us about his jam addiction. All of a sudden, he’s stuffed a jam tart in his mouth and is freaking out that the queen will find out and there’ll be trouble. The only option is for us *all* to eat up the rest of the tarts between us, and hide the evidence that they ever existed! And so we do.

Continuing our journey through a space elaborately decorated with frilly, brightly coloured umbrellas suspended from above, we head up some stairs into a big circular bedouin tent where we sit on cushions and meet the Hookah-Smoking-Caterpillar (more beautiful puppetry) before being subjected to revolutionary rantings in a bunker where each member of our clandestine group is given a badge of a raven and collectively we make a nonsensical pact.

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Raven badges for our clandestine, revolutionary group …of Clubs
From here, we meet up with the rest of our audience/group again in a vast banqueting hall, where a long wooden table is set out for the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Water jets spray sporadically along the table top, an old character is contorted into a tiny tin bath tub amid the crockery and every few minutes, we – the tea party goers – move one space along the table on improvised seats (beer barrels and props). Just when you think it can’t get any more insane, this is Bedlam.

For our final experience – equally mad – we are led into the courtroom, where those of us with club cards are questioned about eating the queen’s tarts. Of course, we deny it and are found NOT GUILTY.

The whole experience of Alice’s Adventures Underground lasts about 90 minutes (with performances starting at 15 or 30 minute intervals every day from April to August 2015). It’s a daring, innovative and thoroughly entertaining experience but was slightly too long for me – I was totally saturated with bonkersness after an hour. That said, it’s well worth seeing.

There’s also a family version (Adventures in Wonderland) that’s suitable for kids, which – I suspect – is shorter, and may be all the better for it.

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Entertainment in Wonderland
Want to know more?
~ BBC News clip: Report about Alice Underground
~ Website: Alice Underground
~ My photos on flickr: limited photos
~ Related blogposts: British culture + arts

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