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Alice in Funderland at the Abbey (Review)

I had the pleasure of catching Alice in Funderland at the Abbey Theatre on Friday night. An attempt to playfully recast Lewis Carroll’s iconic story against the backdrop of modern Dublin, it is – for most of its runtime – an enjoyable high-energy experience with a cheeky charm and a winning wit. It is, however, just a little bit uneven – especially in its first act. In fact, the play works much better indulging its delightful appetite for the insane and the surreal, instead of attempting to offer rather blunt commentary on the political and social character of modern Ireland.

Alice? Who the %@#! is Alice?

Alice in Funderland is a relatively long play – coming close to three hours with an interval included. It’s probably a testament to the production that the audience leaves feeling so refreshed and entertained. That said, I couldn’t help but feel that the play’s second half was infinitely stronger than its first. I suppose that was probably inevitable. The first act is a collection of almost random vignettes as Cork-girl Alice makes her way through late-night Dublin to Hartstown, encountering various characters along the way; while the second is more firmly anchored in Hartstown and its supporting cast.

As our young Corkonian navigates through inner-city Dublin, it seems like her episodic adventures are fairly hit-or-miss. For every rather scathing critique of Irish day time telly or giddy encounter with two buggie-pushing drug dealers or foiled suicide attempt, there’s a ham-fisted exploration of the old North-South divide or a song about the plight of the homeless or a paint-by-numbers condemnation of our elected officials or a bit about a racist taxi driver.

Home is where the Hartstown is...

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the subject matter. I’d imagine they could provide delightful fodder, but they don’t work here. These attempts at social commentary feel awkwardly shoe-horned into the play itself. Despite occasional references to “the recession”, these satirical elements lack any real bite and feel like the somewhat standardised “social conscience” excerpts that are expected in a high-profile new play like this. It’s a shame, because there are small hints of genius to be found. I especially like the decision to cast “the Minister for all your needs” as an American evangelist, even if his role falls into the old-as-time-itself “politicians are cads” mold.

Alice in Funderland works much better when not taking itself – or anything else – too seriously at all. Noting that all of the ensemble are white, the Queen of Hartstown ponders, “Was that a conscious decision?” When Alice fumbles to remember the name of the boy she’s pursuing, a stage-hand has the script handy. When he sneaks up outside her view, she asks the audience, “Whatever happened to ‘he’s behind you!’?” This is, after all, an attempt to translate one of the most gloriously surreal stories in popular imagination to modern Dublin, so Alice in Funderland is at its best when being playful.

Curiouser and curiouser...

Naomi Wilkinson’s design is wonderful, seeming to heighten the absurdity of nineties club culture. There’s something gleefully absurd in seeing Lewis Carroll’s story filtered through a decidedly neon lens – with most of the mood provided by Jack Phelan’s cartoonish video design playing out on a wall of light behind the cast. This is grand, because it leaves the set open for the fifteen-person ensemble to work their magic. Even in the show’s weakest moments, the cast give it their all, and it’s impressive to see them so quickly chopping-and-changing between roles without missing a carefully-choreographed step.

Perhaps reflecting this design to translate the story to an ecstasy trip through a neon nightclub, the sound design is just a little bit too loud at points. Sarah Greene, as Alice, seems to be perfectly in synch with the mix – boasting a wonderful singing voice. However, other cast members are prone to get a bit lost or jumbled – with the backing tracks occasionally playing so loud it’s difficult to make out the succession of puns and witticisms built into the lyrics.Despite this difficulty with the musical numbers, most of the cast are absolutely superb. Mark O’Regan is wonderful in multiple roles, and Paul Reid is great as the show’s rollerskating would-be suicide.

Singing its praises...

However, despite its witty wordplay, it does seem like Phillip McMahon and Raymond Scannell’s play is just a little bit too focused on being topical or “with it.” Titling one of the songs Torsos in the Banal seems like a rather forced (and perhaps somewhat cynical) reference to a piece of Irish news that I’ve seen covered on stage quite often of late – providing a similarly off-key moment in Tiny Plays for Ireland less than a month ago.

It’s references like that – or to the Ros na Run omnibus, or to the members of Boyzone as Irish patriots – that betray a somewhat forced attempt at relevance. Sure, the audience will recognise those references, but they all reflect a pop culture knowledge several years out of date. It’s quite possible that anything more modern would go over the heads of patrons. (They’d probably go over my own head, I freelly concede.) Still, it seems more than a little bit awkward to treat these decade-old staples of Irish culture as wry pop culture punchlines.

Not too taxi-ing...

Still, when Alice in Funderland is good – and that’s for about two-thirds of its runtime – it is very good. It’s just wildly uneven for a significant portion of its first half. It’s still a wonderfully stylish and well-acted translation of the classic story, and it’s hard to judge a three-hour musical too harshly when it breezes by. It’s not perfect, but it’s entertaining. And that’s a good enough thing to be.

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