Jasmin Vardimon: Alice review – a fairytale that never quite goes through the looking-glass

Sadler’s Wells, London
A krumping Cheshire cat enlivens this well-danced adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s coming-of-age story, but Alice’s deeper life remains unexplored

Lewis Carroll’s Alice has inspired plenty of stage spin-offs, but despite the ubiquity, Wonderland provides weak source material. Sure, there is a succession of surreal encounters and colourful characters, but at the centre is a heroine who’s fairly hollow.

For choreographer Jasmin Vardimon, though, Alice as a blank slate might well be the point. This Alice (Evelyn Hart) comes tumbling through the empty pages of a giant book (part of a clever rotating set), her life as yet unwritten. She is a girl heading towards adulthood; her surreal journey is adolescence.

It’s a neat conceit, starting with some obvious metaphors about your body changing in unexpected ways. And the scenes that address this coming-of-age are some of the strongest, like when a multitude of identical Alices do a sort of high-energy line dance to the pop song Living Next Door to Alice (a 1976 hit for Smokie), its chorus ad lib “Who the fuck is Alice?” a very literal question of identity. Elsewhere, there’s some navigation of unwanted male attention, a string of red rags that presumably refer to periods (a red-hooded figure writhing in front of them might be doing a dance of PMT), and a striking scene on the trials of a tempestuous first love: the stage is split in two and a couple’s smooching on one side turns to scrapping as soon as they fall across the dividing line, swinging between passionate extremes.

Evelyn Hart as Alice.
Evelyn Hart as Alice. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The Wonderland stuff, though – the Queen and guards, a krumping Cheshire cat, a smoking caterpillar – is decoration and distraction rather than anything resembling a propulsive journey. Not that there aren’t great dancers to enjoy, with language drawing from hip-hop and contemporary, and some acrobatic fillips thrown in. The gracefully elastic Sean Moss deserves special mention.

The mood is one of whimsical fantasy, but there is not enough here to make us care about Alice herself, nor enough innovation for us to be simply wowed by the spectacle. The best bit is a coda that rotates through Alice’s possible future. We see time, choices, regrets, politics, love, loss – all the stuff of life played out with agency and consequences. Never mind the fancy-dress fairytale: this is the show I want to see.

• At JV Home, Ashford, on 8 and 9 December. Then touring.


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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