The Other Room, Cardiff
Two things that I love that seem unrelated: radio drama and jokes about Les Miserables. Luckily Alix in Wundergarten has fixed my dilemma of never having the two in the same place. What this production also fixes is the Christmas show for people who don’t want… well… a real Christmas show.
The Other Room is the perfect setting for the play, taking place in the cramped radio studio (wonderfully designed by Carl Davies, it feels like the real thing). The audience make their way across the stage to their seats, taking on the role of… the audience; ‘competition winners’ invited to see this recording of Alice in Wonderland. And if, like me, you have a pathological fear of audience interaction I suggest a seat towards the back (even then be prepared for some of the attention directed your way). Still, you cannot help but be impressed with a performance that manages to convince an audience collectively to turn and face the back wall – and to keep every member well and truly with the production the whole way.
The recording session starts by meeting the cast. Actually most of the audience have already met Nick as they entered the ‘studio’, or, indeed, as he tried to sell them one of his CDs while they waited. Nick is the star of the performance, and indeed any performance. A star of many (many) a West End show Nick knows everybody in showbizness and has a story to tell and a name to drop about all of them. He’s produced albums that everyone’s nan likes and isn’t above bursting into song at any (in) appropriate moment. Any similarity to West End actors (particularly any Welshmen who have played Jean Valjean) living or dead, I’m sure is purely coincidental. As Nick proceeds to give everyone acting (writing, directing) tips things, begin to unravel in Wonderland.
Descending first into chaos and then into surrealism, the radio studio quickly begins to reflect the world Lewis Carroll created – things are rarely what they seem and rarely remain the same for more than a few minutes. It’s exhausting and exhilarating to watch the cast leap from one bizarre scenario to another and often bringing the audience along with them. The actors do a brilliant job of holding the audience and maintaining a hold on just enough coherence to see them through increasingly odd moments – from lip-syncing 80s pop tunes and Les Mis tunes in German, to interacting with Christmas ornaments in questionable ways. It’s a credit to Angharad Lee’s direction that the piece keeps the audience engaged – and laughing – as things unravel further and further. A credit to both Lee and her actors also is the ability to make sympathetic engaging characters amid all this the frantic activity.
Alix in Wundergarten is a hilariously funny piece of theatre. It’s also endlessly fascinating with many layers for which one viewing doesn’t really do justice. On one hand there’s a look into the wonderful world of radio drama and its creation; on another there’s a commentary on chaos, surrealism and all the other things Carroll’s original tale inspire. Meanwhile we get a wonderful snapshot of the inner workings of actor’s lives, and with it indeed a snapshot of just how people work when put in that classic scenario of being trapped in a small room together for an extended period of time. And under all that there’s a brief snapshot reflecting on Cold War history. Oh, and not forgetting a bit of musical theatre satire thrown in. As an antidote to traditional tales and Christmas pieces it’s well worth a trip to Wundergarten…
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Photo credits: Aenne Pallasca