Alice in Wonderland

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Nicola Werenowska
Derby Theatre

There have been numerous adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s classic story about Alice disappearing down a rabbit hole and emerging in Wonderland, so do we need another one? After seeing Derby Theatre’s new take on the story, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

Derby Theatre, which produced Mike Kenny’s version of the show in 2016, decided the 2024 show should have deaf and hearing actors and creatives telling the story. All performances are British Sign Language-integrated with creative captioning.

The result is a delightful evening with all the actors working together to produce a commendable show with inclusivity at its heart.

The production features a heart-warming performance by Rhiannon May as Alice. She is the first deaf actor and BSL user to hold a regular role in a BBC series, appearing as Cara Connelly in the crime drama Silent Witness. Here she charms, captivates and dances her way through the adventure and has audience members of all ages rooting for her to stop the Queen of Hearts’s tyrannical ways.

The Mad Hatter’s tea party [images: Pamela Raith]

She is credible as the strong-willed Alice who believes everyone should be free to be yourself as she battles the Queen, who has banned not only BSL signing but also education and fun.

Alice has a cat called Dinah to vocalise her words, energetically performed by a grinning Becky Barry. She also speaks for the sensible Duchess, performed with authority yet passion by Caroline Parker.

Music plays a key role in this production. Ziad Jabero’s songs are catchy and memorable, excellently brought to life by a multi-talented group of singers and musicians. April Nerissa Hudson as a glamorous Queen of Hearts has an impressive vocal range, while Chioma Uma revels in the jazz-inspired tunes she gets to perform as a cool caterpillar.

Nicola Werenowska’s script has a few original touches, the most obvious being the White Rabbit having a French accent. Rhianna Hopkins portrays the character as Lewis Carroll intended, timid and indecisive rather than the Disney film’s animated rabbit.

The effervescence of the actors shines through, particularly when Naomi Gray takes on the role of the Mad Hatter for a tea party, which is one of the most bonkers scenes of the evening.

With strong support from Brooklyn Melvin as the Queen’s sympathetic son Jack, E J Raymond as cook and mouse, Dominic Rye as the Cheshire Cat and a young company of eight, the production rattles along, apart from the odd scene in the first half where the pace slackens slightly.

Derby Theatre’s artistic director Sarah Brigham, who also directed the 2016 production, introduces some clever yet simple touches, while Emily Bestow’s set is dominated by a massive deck of cards and changes effortlessly from one location to another.

Towards the end, Alice proclaims that Wonderland means being different. This version of Alice in Wonderland is certainly that. Derby Theatre has a reputation for staging accessible performances, and this is probably the venue’s most adventurous attempt to be inclusive. Judging by the audience’s reaction on the night I saw the show, the whole cast and crew pulled it off commendably.

* This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide website

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