Down the Rabbit Hole at Alice in Wonderland, Royal & Derngate, Northampton

MY daughter and I don’t get as much time together since she started nursery, but we took an afternoon out last week to take in a show.

Your daughters might be of an age where you can go for a nice meal or a coffee beforehand, do a bit of shopping perhaps, then spend a civilised evening at the theatre.

For me and Bonnie, it was a packet of jelly tots and a Fruit Shoot in the car park at lunchtime, before being dragged down a make-believe burrow by a rabbit impersonating Frank Spencer and a grown woman dressed as a little girl.

This was Down the Rabbit Hole (DTRH, to save my word-count), the latest interactive show for the under-fives at Royal & Derngate’s Underground, a ‘companion piece’ to the Alice in Wonderland show running in the Royal.

I’ve been to several of these pre-school shows before, including the excellent Where’s the Bear, Knit-wits, Wish-wash, Flathampton and What Makes us Tick?

But if you haven’t, be warned: you need flexible joints and knee pads. There’s a lot of crouching and sitting on the floor.

What makes these productions unique is that you have a small bunch of toddlers following actors dressed in funny clothes around a ‘set’ of rooms, being given little tasks and having their own conversations with the characters.

It’s a recipe for disaster really, but somehow they keep the whole thing just about together. It’s proper storytelling.

In DTRH, the ‘audience’ of kids and parents/grandparents meet the White Rabbit in the foyer, where he’s looking for ‘Mary-Ann’ and switching in and out of a Frank Spencer impersonation (one for the olds).

Then we meet Alice, the aforementioned grown-up lady dressed as a little girl, in a style to make Grayson Perry jealous (one for the arty types).

We (the audience) end up following Alice, who is following the Rabbit, down a series of small doors and tunnels, strangely decorated with oversized rabbit bottoms. Like moose-heads on the walls of a baronial dining room.

We arrive in a small room where a picnic table hangs from the ceiling adorned with upside-down cups and teapots. We’re met this time (*whispers*, same actor), by The Mad Hatter, who sits us on cushions, sings us a silly song, treats us to tea and disappears, to be replaced by the Duchess, Mr Punch and the Pig Baby.

The latter gets passed around to be rocked by the sitting toddlers, sometimes cuddled to make it snort or pushed away in bewilderment and/or fear. (*whispers* it’s a rubber pig-shaped dog chew)

Then we make jam tarts for the Queen’s party from play-dough and meet an odd caterpillar which looks like a fluffy scarf accidentally put through the tumble dryer.

There’s a clever distraction as the children see the tiny door from the famous Drink-Me/Eat-Me scene, when Alice gets them to collectively drink from a bowl using oversized straws. “It’s just blackcurrant squash Mum!” piped up one relieved boy.

When the drink’s finished, the door has been replaced by one that’s big enough for an under-five to crawl through, into another ‘land’ where they play croquet through playing cards using flamingo umbrellas and fluffy (toy) hedgehogs.

Eventually we get to meet the weirdly-Geordie Queen, who is dispatched by the cheering toddlers to a chorus of “off to your bed!” (nicer than ‘off with your head’)

The two actors manage to keep the whole thing together in a very enclosed space, and eventually the audience is ejected back into the relative sanity of the theatre bar where they can play with various props and hidden rooms.

Bonnie was completely transfixed, embracing all the ‘pretend’ tea-drinking and conversations. At three-and-three-quarters she’s probably about the ideal age for this. Younger children were either clinging to parents, or ignoring pleas to sit and rolling under curtains.

Bonnie was slightly confused about why this white rabbit, hatter, duchess and queen didn’t appear to look anything like the ones she’d seen on the big stage at the very same theatre just a couple of days earlier. But she loved it nonetheless and has talked non-stop about it to anyone who will listen.

I was slightly disappointed (alright, very stiff from kneeling) because unlike previous ‘underground’ performances, the show didn’t really move beyond one very cramped room.

However, Down the Rabbit Hole is worth the £5 ticket price to see your pre-schoolers engage with the story of Wonderland up-close and interactive – without any help from technology.  It runs until January 8.

ON the subject of Alice In Wonderland, our family went to see the ‘bigger’ show at the Royal. For the only the second time in far too many years of reviewing the Royal’s usually excellent Christmas offering, I was disappointed (the other one was the Ugly Duckling one).

It had an enthusiastic cast, including a Queen of Hearts channeling her best Queenie from Blackadder while dressed like Vivienne Westwood and Lady Gaga’s laundry had been mixed up in the launderette. Hatter was engaging, and the lizard bloke works his socks off. But presented with one of the most magical and familiar stories ever, the plot was ludicrous. Unengaging in most parts, using slapstick more akin to the imported panto next door. That’s not what the Royal’s Christmas show is about. A woman behind me actually fell asleep. A return to the magic and other-worldliness next year please?

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