Wednesday, April 18, 2012

THISISPOPBABY and the Abbey Theatre, ‘Alice in Funderland’: Curiouser and Bleerun’ Curiouser!

The Abbey Theatre, Dublin
Mar 30-May 12

My review of Alice in Funderland coming up just as soon as I provoke you by failing to distinguish between a cravat and a scarf ...

“I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole – and yet – and yet – it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”
-          Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Topical has been the discourse over the past year as to whether or not Irish theatre has entered into some crisis of representation – the slippery subject: Ireland itself.

This concern – spearheaded by Fintan O’Toole’s Power Plays – is that for an absence of some theatrical realism which can identify and present the realities of our recent period of economic collapse. There is no doubt that we have been in a state of accelerated change. As we lose grip of once constituting values such as sovereignty and, for some, nationalism and Catholicism, is it possible that we’ve fallen down our own proverbial rabbit hole and stumbled upon a curious new “sort of life”?

Furthermore, is it possible that Philip McMahon is our very own Lewis Carroll? Carroll declares his most famed book as a piece of literary nonsense, as cited in Mark O’Halloran’s insightful programme note. Where the book confounds and misfires in the signification of meaning, it celebrates the structural possibilities of language in forms such as a riddles, poems, and songs. With similar majesty McMahon demonstrates his mastery of the Dublin vernacular (with some denounced Corkian vowels thrown in as well) and the inventive means with which it has adopted popular culture (“There’s no ‘we’ in ‘Madonna’) and re-appropriated vocabulary. (*)

 (*) A google search for “Bleerun” has done nothing for me. Anyone care to shed light?

Carroll’s Alice is also unable to succeed as a social entiety and often offends others – unable to realise that her cat may not be the best topic of conversation in the company of a mouse. When McMahon’s Alice wades through a Dublin street and tells a bypasser she’s lost, they respond: “Sure that’s a modern condition”. An anxiety stewed in fears of austerity and loneliness has inflicted the city, and not even the vindictive Queen of Hartstown is impervious to it.

Betrayed by a dead man who had anaphylaxis (“and every other slut in town”), Funderland Alice is reluctant to share her sister’s enthusiasm for her forthcoming wedding, never mind her Hen party excursion to Dublin. Like a fish out of water (or the river Lee at least), Alice finds herself lost in the heart of the Dublin night, separated from the others. She’s rescued by white rabbit knight Warren, with whom she shares a whirlwind romance on the dance floor. Warren is then summoned away by the Duchess, and Alice subsequently begins a quest across the city to Hartstown to find him, encountering on her path a Cheshire-grinning politician, a gay scenester nursing a Mock Turtle tragedy, and an Afternoon Show duo with spoonfuls of madness, never mind the tea to put it in.  

Sarah Greene is completely charming as Alice, feisty and unsubtle as a cannonball but also disarming as she navigates the heroine’s identity crisis with sweet bluebird vocals and fantastic throw-downs on the dance floor. She is in excellent company. Delightfully grotesque as the Duchess, Ruth McGill is armed with a steely soprano, beautifully heard in her duet with Susannah de Wrixton in the unconventionally-titled: ‘Torsos in the Banal’. Ian Lloyd Anderson gives a memorable performance as a taxi-driver waving heavy nationalist allegiances, the tri-colours of which are let fly with a Damien Dempsey-type tenor. Wearing a crinoline dress with a radius so large it intimidates, Tony Flynn plays his Queen of Hartstown with a delicious slice of red velvet villainy. Paul Reid Starlight Expresses onto the stage as ‘The Gay’, revealing handsome vocals in a rooftop duet with Greene, ‘We’re All on the Edge’ – the most resonant song of the night, led by the solitary soft pace of a piano.

Unsurprisingly, Raymond Scannell’s (Mimic) compositions are clever and versatile. His score pulses urgently with an addictive Electropop rush of synths but also strips back the instrumentation to reveal intimate piano and cello arrangements.(**) If any Irish director were to tackle the musical genre it would be Wayne Jordan, who often polishes his productions with chic choreography. Designer Naomi Wilkinson creates a glamorous colourful world with her glossy set and costumes, enhanced by Sinéad McKenna’s sugary lighting and Jack Phelan’s subtle video design.

(**) Does anyone know if recordings of the songs will be available for purchase anytime in the future? I swear, I’m going again largely in part to absorb the music.

Alice in Funderland bears the unmistakable glamour of THISISPOPBABY – a fusion of nightclub culture, queer performance and social justice. Such aesthetic influences have their theoretical origins in destabilising previous dominant and violent models of gender and class relationships. McMahon takes leaps in his script that are too far, particularly in regards to the relationship between Alice and her sister, suggesting that perhaps a destabilisation of some cultural norm is the greater aim here.   

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is ultimately a story of adapting. As the heroine encounters the strange creatures in Wonderland, she betrays the lessons of vocabulary and mathematics that she had acquired in her own world. However, she learns new lessons. She learns which side of the mushroom will make her bigger and which side will make her smaller, and she reserves pieces from each side for when she needs them. She uncovers new rhymes and verses. Alice adapts somewhat of a strategy, and it’s appropriate for this reason that Carroll uses the chessboard conceit for the book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass.

In Alice in Funderland, chess squares are lit to illuminate Alice’s path of progress. She also recites a rhyme given to her to distinguish between the north side of the city and the south side. We are shown a heroine which has to adapt to the conventions of a different world. As the musical hits its finale – a declaration to live life according to its potential and not to the burdens of an increasing culture of austerity – it appears that THISISPOPBABY are letting us in on a strategy of which to adapt to a changed Ireland:

“There is no fear, just nonsense”  

 What did everybody else think?


  1. I think "bleerun" is an attempt to spell out how "bleeding" would be said in a strong Dublin accent.

  2. That was a beautiful review of a beautiful show. 'Alice in Funderland' had me deep in thought for quite some time, especially as I am lucky enough to be studying this show for my English degree in NUI Maynooth. I only wish that I knew the original 'Alice in Wonderland' better, but I will definitely be looking into it once I make it through my exams.

    Although there were many elements that provide food for thought, I am particularly interested in the gender roles within the show.

    As well as Paul Reid's character, 'The Gay', in the first scene in the Dublin nightclub we see males in the women's bathroom; we later see a male amongst a group of three female hookers; the colour scheme makes no distinction between genders (men wear pink and women wear blue), but most important of all, Dolores, The Queens of Hartstown, is a female role played by a man. I am interested in the fact that there was no attempt to disguise the actor's gender.

    Throughout the show references are made to enforce the idea that the Queen is female (she talks about being in labour with her daughter, Chloe, etc.), however during a scene where the Queen changes clothes, we can clearly see that she has the body of a man. Furthermore, there is a scene where Dolores passionately kisses a female hooker.

    As well as the puzzle of the character of the Queen of Hartstown, I am also interested in Alice's view of the role of men in her life.

    At first, we see Alice dreading the idea of her sister's wedding, because she will be there alone, pitied by everyone around her. However, near the end of the play, she learns about Chloe's wedding (Chloe being her surrogate sister) and she is thrilled at the idea of the marriage. Chloe even asks her to be a bridesmaid, which she never protests against. This is at the stage where she is near to finding Warren, so it is as though having a man (or even the idea of NEARLY having a man) gives her strength and changes her attitude entirely.

    To Alice, her journey to Hartstown is a journey to find Warren, whereas to the audience, it's about Alice finding herself (she often asks herself throughout the play "Who am I?" and comments "I don't know who I am"). In finding Warren, she finds herself, as though she is defined by the male in her life.

    After she has been condemned by the Queen, Alice is told by fellow prisoners that "the way to get real is to stand on [her] own two feet" and a guard comments that the barriers are in her head (sort of). To me, this says that Alice thinks she needs a man to find her own strength.

    By the end of the show, when she wakes up in her own living room (after she realises that the romance between her and Warren was something she had constructed in her own mind and that she was better off without him) she remarks that she feels very "real", as the prisoners had suggested.

    Any comments or ideas? I would love to expand my thoughts on this show!