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Alice with Attitude

This year’s Christmas show at the Rose Theatre sees a classic character made a heroine for our times. Director Ciaran McConville explains all to Paul Critcher.

For the last four years the Rose Theatre’s Christmas show has been a central part of the town’s seasonal celebrations. And this year, with its Alice in Winterland production, it once again links up with the town centre to provide the theme for Kingston’s Christmas lights.

It’s fair to say that much of the success of the shows has been down to the fact that they place community at their very core. The Rose has one of the biggest youth theatres in the country and director Ciaran McConville auditioned more than 300 young people for roles in this year’s show.

Having written and directed the show for the last three years (previous adaptations include The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, A Christmas Carol and last year’s Wind in the Willows), Ciaran himself is a crucial part of the ongoing success. But what makes a good Christmas show?

“We look for titles that aren’t pantomime titles,” says Ciaran. “Big titles that are familiar. When we first looked at Alice in Wonderland, we wanted to give ourselves permission to move away from Lewis Carroll. So having established that Alice is a great hero to have and a title that people like, we wanted to be creative with it and make it an adventure where we follow this girl as she solves the challenges that she needs to overcome. Our framing is very different from the book, and quite bold. It’s also very festive.”

The challenge, of course, with a family production such as this is to make it appealing to all ages, so the team has had to balance making a visual spectacle along with including an emotional thread. Previous years have even seen a political element to the show, particularly in last year’s Wind in the Willows.

“It was interesting to see how people responded to that [political element],” says Ciaran. “Willows was a deliberate choice, to move from being about disgruntled working class and entitled middle class, to the 1930s and a group of people who wanted power and a group of people who didn’t want to accept that the others wanted power. And that all sounds very dark, of course – Willows is obviously known for being really light and full of clowning – but by changing the focus we actually got it away from the issues of class.”

“It wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice to make it a political piece but it was interesting to see what people thought – some people saw Chief Weasel as Putin, others saw him as Boris Johnson, some as Trump, some as Hitler. Everyone took something different from it.”

“This year we feel very strongly about having this female ‘kick ass’ heroine and it feels like a great time for that. Not only is it a great community play with a community cast that involves many girls, but also it’s a year where we’ve had Wonder Woman, the RSC is launching a season directed by women and it feels right to have this character. She’s a feminist, and boys and girls are going to come and watch Alice discover how powerful she can be. It’s a superhero story.”

Ciaran describes working with the young cast as “joyful” and was hugely impressed by the four girls who will alternate in the lead role as Alice.

“They are so inspiring – the warmth, the energy, the love… they are just wonderful, wonderful kids. The four girls playing Alice – Eleanor Clark, Gaia Mondadori, Madeleine Lynes and Hannah Wilkinson – all made me cry in their auditions. They all have a wonderful tenderness and at the same time a natural charisma. They have that lovely sensitivity and at the same time a ‘kick ass’ attitude.”

Large, big set scenes have become a trademark of the shows and Alice in Winterland is no different, with a big battle scene planned. “We’re using fight director Lyndall Grant who is brilliant, and the battle is the biggest thing I’ve ever done and one off the biggest things the Rose has ever done. It involves fantastical creatures, a girl with a broad sword and a queen with a battleaxe. There is a moment in the battle which is the closest I’ve come to total theatre, where every department is working towards a single moment on that stage. On one hand it gives me goosebumps to think about that and on the other hand it gives me sleepless nights because we’ve got to get it right.”

And how do they go about bringing the magical world of Winterland to life? “It’s a huge cast to costume – there are five professional cast members and 52 young actors, and to costume that number is a vast, ambitious job. The play has plenty of wit and sparkle and a lot of that comes from the costumes. This year we’re also working with puppets at quite an advanced level, which involves a whole different sort of training and manipulating the world comes down to the young company.”

“We’ve also got some brilliant funny lyrics and sounds by Eamonn O’Dwyer. He’s co-written the script with me and his songs are great – he seems to write them at a furious pace that just makes me resent him wildly as I struggle over my script! He’s a genius.”

It’s a question that I can guess the answer to, but I ask it anyway. Having occupied the role of director of the Christmas show for several years, does he still have an appetite for it?

“I love working with the young people and I love the challenge of that stage and knowing that so many of those audiences have never been to the theatre before. To have the responsibility and excitement to say to them that theatre is not some elitist, distant thing but something that can totally rock your world and open up imagination at any age ... I have a huge appetite for it.”

Alice in Winterland runs from Thursday 7 December to Sunday 7 January. For tickets, visit www.rosetheatrekingston.org.

A WORD FROM ALICE

What’s the best thing about being cast as Alice?
Playing an iconic, strong and curious character, as well as working with an amazing new script. I’ve been excited since being cast and I can’t see that changing any time soon.

What’s your favourite scene in the show and why?
I don’t think I can pick just one. I love the scenes when Alice meets the bizarre characters – they’re great fun and the Young Company actors who play them are really talented. All of the scenes with the song and dance numbers leave me with goosebumps.

Alice is a strong female character, but which other females inspire you?
There are so many! My friends inspire me in a lot of ways, the young cast and my fellow Alices as well. Of course, there are also so many women in the public eye, both past and present, who inspire me to be a woman who likes to be more than one thing.

Why should people come to the show?
They’ll see the Lewis Carroll characters they love, alongside original songs and script. There really is something for all ages. And they’ll be showing their support for a great local theatre.

Photo by Rachael LowndesDirector Ciaran McConvilleDaniel Goode as the Mad Hatter and Eleanor Clark as Alice