Alice in Wonderland, SNADS at Sturminster Newton Exchange

MOST amateur theatrical companies put on an annual pantomime … it’s what we do in England and it is usually a sure-fire banker, attracting all ages and often entire families along for the fun.

But everything is getting more and more expensive these days. Hiring halls, renting scripts, costumes, sets … the list goes on.  And so the temptation must be strong to ignore the tried and tested (and often tired) traditional scripts and opt for the new versions downloadable  from the internet at a fraction of the royalties cost.

It’s a risk.  If you have a very well known story – the Cinderellas, Aladdins, Dick Whittingtons and Mother Geese – you can be pretty certain the audience will know the plot and you can add in your own local and topical jokes.

At Sturminster Newton Amateur Dramatic Society the choice was a downloaded Alice in Wonderland, produced, according to the programme, by Limelight Scripts.  Now Alice is a wonderful, fantastic and complex story, full of colourful characters and extraordinary happenings, but it depends on charismatic performances and unceasing pace.

Vanessa Dawson, an actress of great experience and fine comic timing, has directed a large company made up of SNADS regulars and new youngsters, and the show is on in the wide open spaces of The Exchange until 13th February.

The stage was designed to accommodate large companies – there’s no restriction for massed choirs or big musical choruses. But for smaller forces both the width and the acoustic have proved problematic.

One of the auditorium’s great advantages is its raked seating, giving everyone a good view. But you can’t tell the audience where to sit, and if almost all of them opt for the tiered seats, it leaves a yawning chasm of empty chairs between the stage and the people. That’s what happened on Wednesday.

No matter how hard the performers worked, it was impossible to establish the rapport needed for pantomime.  The Joker (Dave Meakin) did his level best to get some audience participation, but they simply couldn’t hear, or remember, the complicated call which was supposed to accompany his every entrance … something about a funny bloke and another joke, I think.

It, like so many of the lines, was lost.

There were some memorable characterisations, notably from Alison and Jessica Mash as the hilarious and brilliantly choreographed Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, from Teegan Pearce as Alice, Tania White as the decapitation-obsessed Queen of Hearts and Mike Johnson as her king, from Rebecca Horn as the Sergeant (and the March Hare), and of course from Ian Grieg as Dame Millie. He’s SO seasoned a dame that he felt able to diss the script from beginning to end, and rightly so.

There was also some good singing, though the songs were interpolated without enough context. Becci Ridout (Princess Ruby) did a very powerful To Make You Feel My Love, the Dylan song popularly covered by Adele, and the King and Queen delighted with I Remember it Well.

The young dancers were particularly good in their routines, directed by Louise Ward.

The celebrated SNADS male chorus made a mini-appearance, but haggises would have been much funnier as brown round things, not kilted Scotsmen in caricature red wigs and beards. And why oh why do pantomime writers think that Hippies are a good source of amusement?

The sets and costumes, including delightful rabbit flats to decrease the width of the stage, clever back projections and animal heads, were designed by Leander Cunningham (costumes) and Jenny Powell (sets), with lots of help from various society members.

I don’t imagine I was alone in regretting the passing of the old hall, where the warmth and intimacy allowed the cast to get some real energy going with the audience. Please try to find a better script next year.


[My apologies to the set and costume designers for the previous error!]

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