Preview: Alice in Wonderland (Brixton House)

Will Spence, a founding member of award-winning genre-bending theatre company Poltergeist and cast member on their co-production of Alice in Wonderland with Brixton House, talks to us about this very special remix running 1-31 December.

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Poltergeist and Brixton House’s co-production of Alice in Wonderland sounds like a great family show for Christmas! What’s different about this adaptation?

Our version of Alice inWonderland begins with Alice having an argument with her mum at Brixton station – as things come to a head, she hops onto a speeding tube train which soon descends into wonderland.

Alice in Wonderland is a pretty interesting, weird book – it’s very post-modern and the images are very strong – the inhabitants and world of wonderland are quite lodged in the cultural consciousness.

But we think the plot is a bit of a weak spot of the novel – Carroll’s novel is like a sketch show which foregoes character and plot progression. Alice just goes around trying (and failing) to communicate with the characters in wonderland, and then at the end she just wakes up.

Our version of Alice in Wonderland attempts therefore to adapt the spirit of the book whilst giving Alice proper character stakes – remixing the fantastical world of wonderland into modern day London. We hope it’s also a silly, thrilling and warm show that the whole family can enjoy.

Brixton House is starting to find its feet in its new home. What’s it like staging a show there?

Brixton House have nurtured and supported this show right from its first inception in March 2021. It has been pretty incredible for us as a company to have a building place their trust in us to make a show at this level.

For Alice in Wonderland we’ll be rearranging the theatre space, so that the audience is on both sides with the stage running down the middle, which will make our staging seem immersive, with the feel of a tube-train.

This is the first time the space at Brixton House will have been used in this way, and hopefully it will pave the way for other companies to innovate in what is a very flexible, technically equipped theatre.

It’s been so nice as a young(ish) theatre company to have a building give us their entire support in making a show, it’s really refreshing, and it has enabled the show to be as bold and confident as it can be.

This is really the kind of thing the bigger theatre institutions in the capital need to look at and learn from, because some of the most exciting theatre in the UK at the moment is company led work. I’m a bit biased, but I think it’s the kind of work that it’s worth taking a risk on.

Photograph of Will Soence

I love the idea of using London-centric settings like a speeding tube train. Is this a love letter to the capital as well as the fantasy of the original book?

The world of our show is a wonderland refracted both through the lens of the book and also the London transport network and Brixton where Alice lives.

The London Underground is one of the best transport systems in the world, and I often find myself in awe at the fact that it runs under our feet, a little land of its own unnoticed by overgrounders.

Our show is also located in Brixton, and it hopefully also works as a love letter to this specific part of London where the work has been made and performed.

I know you have been involved in devising this Alice as well as appearing in it – where do the ideas come from and do you like taking on multiple roles?

In the devising room when ideas emerge they feel very owned by the whole room, rather than anyone laying claim to a particular idea. The idea for this show emerged from looking at a range of children’s stories and figuring out which appealed to us for adapting into a family Christmas show.

At some point early on we started talking about and imagining Alice in Wonderland set on the tube, and it just seemed like one of those ideas that was too good to pass up – the way the tube is its own little bubble, which daily hosts the most bizarre scenes in the city.

Who in particular came up with the idea is something that I don’t think any of us remember – it’s sort of the atmosphere of trust, combined with play, that generates the ideas, it’s kind of exciting and a little bit spiritual in that way.

Jack [Bradfield, director] then took the hefty pile of ideas formed in those devising rooms for this show and formalised them into a script, but even there the specifics of text are up in the air and changeable in the rehearsal room if a better joke/line ever emerges.

And in terms of taking on multiple roles that’s always something I’ve done with Poltergeist. It’s where I sit most comfortably being a part of the company.

With this project it was interesting as a lot of the early development of the show wasn’t very performance based at all, but instead spending a lot of time carefully thinking about and shading in the specifics of the world.

It has been fun to shift mode when rehearsals started into examining and physicalising the text as any performer would do.

Poltergeist’s work is becoming recognised as new and dynamic. Can you share any future plans with us?

Nothing concrete that we can talk about at the moment, but we have a few ideas gestating. We worked on a digital project last year – Ghost Walk, which you can still download on the App Store, and play in the City of London – and we want to make more of this type of form-challenging work, because we were quite proud of that.

It’s also our fifth birthday as a company next year, so we’re hopefully going to do something to mark that.

Promotional image for Alice in Wonderland