Alice in Wonderland preview: ‘prodigious’

By Adele Cooke

Approaching a classic text with a magnitude as large as Alice In Wonderland is a huge feat for even the most talented of ensembles. However, the Durham Operatic Ensemble will take on such a task with great talent, whimsy and humour. From their evident acting abilities to their prodigious musical talents, it’s clear this is a cast that can handle more than your average performance.

The show draws upon the original Alice in Wonderland plot, with the additions of music by composer Will Todd and words by Maggie Gottlieb. As Todd is from County Durham and attended Durham University, this is clearly a show that’s very close to home. Todd and Gottlieb also worked with the cast in the early stages of production, which producer Rosa Hirtzel described as “amazing”. Director Alabama Jackson and assistant director Ava Merrell capitalise on the very Durham nature of this show by incorporating several illusions to university life and our campus, adding tongue in cheek references to Hatfield and Hild Bede along the way.

However, it’s the cast’s commitment to this performance which is apparent in every element of this show. Jackson put her cast through a strenuous rehearsal schedule, spanning the last three months. Moreover, during the last few weeks, Merrell described how the cast have been working for at least four or five hours each day. This show is nothing if not a practised and well-executed performance. The ensemble’s dedication has clearly paid off, as during the dress rehearsal they seamlessly harmonised in unison and performed many choreographed sections in perfect synchronisation.

What’s refreshing is that the show is not entirely inward looking. Prior to the exam season, the group visited Pelton Community Centre, where they performed before an audience of disabled adults, who received the play with great joy. Hirtzel also described how they had contacted local primary schools, hoping to share the performance with more than just the student audience. It’s this genuine enthusiasm and eagerness from all members of the cast that translates so well in rehearsal.

However, on Thursday the cast bring their performance to a university audience whilst performing on the St Johns College Library Lawn. Performing outside places a clear focus on the cast, as set designer Izzy Young opted for minimal staging for maximum effect. The only clear challenge to the cast is the weather, but Jackson is quietly confident. Instead, she illustrates that the group are “learning to dance in the rain”, a sentiment that also illustrates the cast ability to handle any challenge posed, not just the threat of oncoming clouds.

Special emphasis must be placed on James Mactavish, Hannah Cox and Catherine Bench, who thrived in rehearsals, and I’m sure will excel in performance. Each of these performers clearly proved their acting chops, conveying larger-than-life characters which are true to Carrol’s original. Other focus must also be placed upon the orchestra, an eleven-piece set that gives the performance a highly professional feel. This will be especially evident during large ensemble numbers, where the orchestra and cast blended seamlessly, providing a high level of musical talent which has become the hallmark of this ensemble.

Following the success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Mansfield Park, I’m confident this performance will be another triumph for the Durham Operatic Ensemble, and with such high quality and talent, this show is a must see.

‘Alice in Wonderland’ will be performed on the St Johns College Library Lawn from Thursday, 15th of June until Saturday, 17th of June at 18:30. Book your tickets here.

Photograph: Durham Operatic Ensemble

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