Edinburgh Fringe 2010
This is a world premiere of a new musical by Gyles Brandreth and Susannah Pearse, a two-hander that explores the relationship between Lewis (Charles Dodgson) Carroll and Isa Bowman
Penned by Gyles Brandreth and Susannah Pearse, Michael Maloney plays Reverend Charles Dodgson and Flora Spencer-Longhurst is Isa Bowman in a musical dialogue exploring the relationship between Dodgson and Bowman, the seventeen year-old stage performer of his "Alice". This is also a study of a younger woman’s wish to step free of role playing and to enter the diversity of experience that womanhood (and adulthood) can and should provide. Dodgson would keep her chained to a single role, recapturing the (controversial) and captivated love of his "Alice", who grew up to be something much worse than his cherished ideal of her. Young Alice turned into a disappointment for Dodgson; Bowman keeps the Alice of younger days alive.
Ciaran Bagnall has created for us a set which is full of ‘Wonderland’ visual vignettes, and Dodgson’s own love of "wonder" in his love of magic tricks and imagination abounds throughout the piece. Hanging picture frames (with embedded screens) show us time, place and a little narrative, adding to the through-the-looking-glass feel. There are visual tricks galore and there’s an impressive hand-crafted feel to it all. The set very much enhances the mood of this dialogue between a Dodgson who is both innocent and also somewhat tragic, (though the controversies and rumours of his behaviour with younger girls is left aside in Brandreth’s very wordy piece), and a Bowman in thrall to Dodgson even as she wishes to break free of the game and meet him on adult terms.
"Alice" – the original, does not come off well in her portrayal by Isa Bowman, played and sung to perfection by Flora Spencer-Longhurst . Maloney’s Dodgson is an acting masterpiece and his ability to erupt into verbal fireworks one moment, and then become picture-still the next, playful like a child the next moment, and then intensely still the next, makes him a compelling and watchable character throughout. It’s a charisma born of an ability to range the emotions with seeming ease, and the direction of Iqbal Khan allows his natural talents as a character actor to flow. It’s the major strength of this piece – the acting and the chemistry between Bowman-Alice and Dodgson-Carroll. Dodgson the man is presented as a soul in shadow, (often physically so on the stage too), Carroll as an innocent, someone with a love of the young, the imagination, of magic, of poetry and of the security that goes with repeating the ‘game’. Dodgson flees into reliving the past, recapturing youth in the now and Bowman, now seventeen, feels trapped by the role she repeatedly plays.
The hour and a half-long play does dip somewhere in the middle, and, at times, feels verbose and perhaps too full of Brandreth’s own often publicly seen gift for witty and fast wordplay. Maloney is up to the task but it sometimes feels it is Brandreth speaking too much through him. This is reflected in the direction I think, which compensates with periods of "slowing down", allowing Dodgson to savour in song the music which is integral to the dialogue and the narrative. Though not entirely memorable, the score is often stirring and fitting and weaves well into the wordplay and visual set pieces. Maloney’s Jabberwocky is outstanding and Spencer-Longhurst certainly captured the image and mood of Alice that I’ve had in my head since childhood. These set pieces sparkle in the production.
Overall, with a closer look at the flow and pacing of the middle part the script, this could be an outstanding show. As it stands, it’s a very high quality production, full of wit, magical weaving of fantasy and reality, and two very fine performances from Maloney and Spencer-Longhurst. Highly recommended.