Les Enfants Terrible on Alice’s Adventures Underground
“What we’re doing here is world-building,” says Oliver Lansley. Together, with co-director James Seager, his company Les Enfants Terribles is in the process of creating its version of Wonderland, the surreal, playful and intoxicating realm created by Lewis Carroll 150 years ago, in the Vaults beneath Waterloo station.
Les Enfants Terribles has a reputation for creating richly imagined work; its past shows include Ernest and the Pale Moon, The Terrible Infants, and its First World War drama The Trench which had an Alice-like quality to it as well, journeying into the fantastical.
Lansley and Seager are aware that a balance needs to be struck when bringing to life a book so central to our cultural landscape. “We wanted to create something which felt fresh but at the same time we knew there were things people would want and expect, there were boxes we needed to tick,” says Lansley. It’s interesting that in choosing their title, Alice’s Adventures Underground, they’ve gone with the original title of Carroll’s novel.
“Everyone thinks they know Alice,” continues Lansley, “but the version they know is a mix of the Disney film, the Tim Burton film, the BBC TV show they watched when they were 11 and the illustrations.”
“It’s a book that has so many layers,” says Seager. “I’m reading it to my daughter but also it’s one of my girlfriend’s favourite books.” It’s a book that reveals more to you when you read it again as a grown-up.
Lansley and Seager are talking to me in producer Emma Brunjes’ bright white office above Wardour Street, and they all brighten visibly when they start showing me the artwork and talking about the complexity and detail of the project. I glimpse giant grinning cats’ heads and mechanical rabbit ears. They speak with excitement and delight about the work of designer and regular collaborator Sam Wyer. What’s immediately evident is the scale of the production.
“There are 33 individual sets,” says Brunjes – who previously worked with Secret Cinema, as well as shows by Meow Meow and Nina Conti. The show, as with Les Enfants Terribles’ previous work, will combine elements of live music, puppetry and circus. It is designed to be experienced in groups of 52, a pack of playing cards; on arrival each audience member will be presented with a choice of ‘eat me’ or ‘drink me’, which will shape how their experience of the show unfolds. This means that there are vast numbers of permutations (Brunjes, who likes numbers, is keen to find out exactly how many).
They’re all, however, wary of using the word immersive. “We’ve all had experiences,” says Lansley, “where we’ve been to shows and you come out and find there are things you haven’t seen and it’s frustrating.”
They want to avoid their audiences feeling this frustration but at the same time they want everyone who comes to have a different experience, one personal to them. They want it to be the kind of event to which people come back in order to find a different path through the world.
“We’ve talked a lot about the audience experience, about choice, about agency,” says Brunjes. Putting the whole thing together has been a feat of organisation. “It all comes down to planning,” she says firmly. “With a project like this you have to plan everything in great detail.”
They were also keen, having created this space, to use it to its fullest. To this end they have also created a second production, Adventures in Wonderland, which is designed for children aged five and upwards. Directed by Emma Earle, this sister show will take place in the same venue but will be tailored to a younger audience; at 45 minutes long, it will be a more manageable length and while it will include some of the same scenes as the adult production, it will also contain new, kid-friendly material (involving cake).
While discussing the show, Brunjes uses the words ‘destination’ and ‘event’ a lot. On Monday nights, the space will play host to the Wonderland sessions, a series of talks looking at the cultural legacy of the world Carroll created; on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the bar will stay open late and there will be DJs and live music, allowing people to play in the space after the show. There will be Alice-themed cocktails, care of Bourne and Hollingsworth, and some of the performers will be on hand to mingle. “We want people to be able to stay in the world, to continue to interact with it if they wish,” says Lansley. Ticket holders will be issued with a membership card, allowing them (and friends) access to the bar, but they’re opening it to everyone for a £5 fee on the door.
Unlike Les Enfants Terribles’ other work, “this is a completely unsubsidised project”, stresses Lansley, “but an entrepreneurial spirit has always been part of what we do”. The shows require a large company of performers and creatives and it’s very important to them, he affirms, “that everyone gets paid, and paid properly”.
“We’re offering investors a new model here,” says Brunjes. “I’ve got a substantial amount of new investors for this production, which I’m really excited about. Some traditional theatre investors can be a little wary of work like this; they’re used to West End theatre, pros arch theatre, and we’re offering something really different creatively so there was a challenge there.
“But what attracted most of our investors is that this is a project with multiple revenue streams. We could say your return isn’t just based on ticket income, it’s based on the bar, it’s based on food – there are three different food outlets. We’ve put merchandise into the pot as well, which is quite unusual.”
She continues: “Given the state of our economy, there are fewer people with large amounts of disposable income, who can invest £50,000-£100,000, but you can get more people through the door on the £5,000 or less model. Investment shouldn’t be a club you can only get into if you have tens of thousands to invest. It’s harder work, as producer, because you have more investors to look after but the model is changing; gone are the days of three or four people funding one show.”
What’s important, she stresses, is the harmony between the creative and the commercial aspects of the production, which she hopes is something they’ve achieved here.
Pricing is also a factor. Building intricate interactive worlds – and paying everyone involved – is expensive. But as Secret Cinema demonstrated, when they recently announced their next event, The Empire Strikes Back, would cost £75, a figure which is in line with many West End shows, there’s a line in many people’s minds when it comes to paying for experiences like this.
Tickets for the adult Alice show start at £35, climbing to £47.50 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. “Our standard ticket was always going to be under £50,” says Brunjes. “I think that’s a fair price given the amount of work involved. You have to make the economics work, of course, but I’m really proud of that price.” They’re also experimenting (as did Punchdrunk, with The Drowned Man), with a premium ticket package which allows ticket holders into a separate bar and includes bonus material.
Lansley whips out his phone to show me the bunny ears in motion as he rattles through a list of the creative talent involved. “The industry response to this has been great. It’s really captured people’s imaginations.”
Alice’s Adventures Underground will run from April 16-August 30 and Les Petits’ Adventures in Wonderland from April 25-August 30 at the Vaults, London