Image credit: Jason Joyce
Celebrating the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s iconic story, Alice’s Adventures Underground is the ambitious and innovative brainchild of immersive theatre company Les Enfants Terribles (LET), created in collaboration with Emma Brünjes and Creature of London. Having painstakingly realised their own Wonderland in the Vaults beneath London Waterloo, the company invites visitors to take a tumble down the rabbit hole and create their own adventure through a series of choices, challenges and chance encounters. It’s taken four years to get to this stage, so is it worth all the work and the waiting? Creators Oliver Lansley, James Seager and Emma Brünjes explained the method behind their madness.
“Over the years, we’ve enjoyed lots of exciting immersive theatre, but we always felt there was something missing, so we started thinking about stories that really took the audience away to another world,” said Seager, producer at LET.
“Alice in Wonderland isn’t a linear journey, it’s more a series of sketches and mathematical problems with bizarre characters coming in and out. That doesn’t always work in adaptations, but it felt like a natural fit for this type of theatre,” said Lansley, LET’s artistic director and the show’s co-writer.
Brünjes, who joined the project later, admired LET’s meticulous planning as well as their creativity: “I think what really drew me to the project was their brilliant vision, which combined the best elements of immersive theatre with the satisfaction of a piece of narrative theatre. From a producer’s point of view, I knew that I could get my hands dirty and try something completely different.”
Though its format is unique, the story and characters at the heart of the show remain faithful to Carroll’s original vision, with large chunks of text from both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass incorporated into performances.
“Speaking as the non-writer, when I first read it, it was difficult to tell which bits were Carroll and which bits Oliver and Anthony [Spargo] had written,” said Seager.
Among the things that distinguishes this venture from other Alice-inspired productions is the strong element of choice involved. Audiences – or perhaps more accurately, participants – are presented with a series of options throughout their journey, with their decisions altering their experiences.
“I’ve never known such a complicated show,” said Brünjes. “EAT ME or DRINK ME is your first choice. You’re then split up, depending on whether you enter Red Border Control or Black Border Control, into Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds or Spades, and allocated a specific card. There are various one-on-ones that you may be pulled into, and actions to be completed by the end of the show. Your experience in the bar will also differ depending on the music and which actors are there. We have a statistician currently crunching the numbers to work out how many times you could see this show and still encounter something different.”
“The novels are very complete in their world-building,” said Lansley. “You get the sense that Wonderland exists whether Alice is there or not, so we wanted to recreate that with our audience as Alice.”
Naturally, pulling off something so elaborate requires careful co-ordination, and the cast and crew have just begun an exhausting-sounding rehearsal schedule.
“There are 30 actors and several directors, so it’s a bit of a plate-spinning exercise for us, hovering between five different rehearsal rooms,” said Lansley. “We’re feeling a bit like the Duracell Bunny at the moment, but it’s exciting!”
You may not have to be mad to build Wonderland, but it probably helps: as if the main show wasn’t complex enough, LET have also created an alternative version for children, which will run during the day and throughout the school holidays.
“When we started we weren’t quite sure where to pitch it, and eventually we realised that we were limiting ourselves by trying to cater for everyone in one production,” said Lansley. “With the adult one, we wanted to be a bit darker and more sophisticated in the storytelling, but at the same time, Alice in Wonderland is one of the greatest pieces of children’s literature ever written. As a child, there’s something incredibly exciting about the idea of going to Wonderland, so we didn’t want to exclude them.”
The children’s version is cut from 90 minutes down to 45, and has a cast of 8 reduced from 30. Nevertheless, it was important not to oversimplify things and risk patronising younger visitors. Instead, the team hopes to create something that is accessible, challenging and engaging for all ages.
Additionally, on Monday nights, when the show is not running, the company will host a series of events exploring the story’s wider cultural impact. The Wonderland Sessions will feature a diverse mix of Alice-inspired creatives, including performers (from film to ballet), fashion experts and Alice Liddell’s own granddaughter.
With so much work to be done, finding the right collaborators was vital. Luckily, they managed to secure some of the best in the business.
“Because the scale of this is so huge, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to do everything ourselves,” said Lansley. “Creature came on board early on, and they’ve been great at establishing partnerships with people we might not have had access to otherwise – often from bigger brands and corporations.”
“The collaboration on this show is extraordinary,” Lansley continued. “We’ve got Cirque du Soleil’s puppet designer Max Humphries, Sam Wyer who has worked at the National, Joe Hufton who was one of Secret Cinema’s directors, Mike Gunning who did the lighting for The Drowned Man, our puppet director Finn Caldwell who worked on War Horse – the list goes on. We’ve been very privileged that they’ve all wanted to come and join our project.”
Alice’s Adventures Underground opens at the London Vaults on 9 April, with tickets available via the website. Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?