Any college faces an uphill struggle in putting on a Fresher’s play, even one as big as Emmanuel. Many shows have trouble finding a suitable cast from the entire range of Cambridge acting talent, so finding one from one year of one college seems an especially daunting task. Moreover, not all college auditoriums make for ideal theatres, being built to suit lectures rather than plays. This is especially true of the Emmanuel’s Queen’s Building; it is a wonderful room but not much of a performance space, lacking both wings and a backstage area, rendering subtle scene changes virtually impossible.
Given these limitations, Alice in Wonderland, requiring a large cast and the creation of a fantasy world on stage, seems a strange choice of play for the Emmanuel Fresher’s show. A generally strong and energetic cast put pay to the first concern, but the second proved more problematic. The production is caught between the twin impracticalities of rendering Wonderland literally on stage with such limited resources, and leaving everything to the audience’s imagination. The result is that we are treated to a parade of stage-hands bringing on small pieces of set every few seconds, in frustratingly unreliable blackouts. It gives the play a fractured feel that unfortunately negates much of the energy that the cast bring to it. It is also difficult to know precisely who the play is aimed at: Alice in Wonderland is essentially a children’s story, and the play might have benefited from a younger audience than it had on Tuesday night.
Despite all this, there is still plenty of fun to be had here for an older audience, particularly in some skilled comic performance. Of particularly note are Luke Bramwell’s hilariously manic Mad Hatter, Simon Abernethy’s Dodo (in the tightest trousers you’ve ever seen), and Laurie Doering’s impressively feline physicality as the cat. Most importantly, Sophie Smith makes for a charming heroine; despite being lumbered with a script that often gives her little more to do that narrate what is happening to her (“I’m growing!” “I’m shrinking!” etc.) she still manages to make Alice sympathetic and lovable. There are also some well-directed set pieces, and the final dance number is a triumph.
This is hardly a great piece of theatre, but it is certainly an entertaining way of spending a couple of hours, and marks out a couple names to look out for in the future.