Despite the name of the piece, and the claim on the flyer that this was an ‘award-winning youth company,’ I wasn’t expecting this production to be the work of such a young cast. With themes of anxiety and depression, seen through the ‘mental’ (in both senses) world of Alice, I figured this piece would require a degree of maturity well-beyond the dancers’ years.
However, even before the piece began I found myself putting my prejudice aside. As the audience entered, members of the cast were already ‘in role’ sitting on the stage. Mainly in couples, they were chatting, playing games, and in some cases engaging in petty squabbles. This perfectly set the scene for a key theme of the work: relationships. Also, crucially, how in the formative years, those relationships pave the way to the future.
Once the actual piece gets under way, we discover a host of demons and constraints that Alice encounters, each presented through various interactions. With mirrors, masks, striking puppetry (a huge, grotesque Jabberwocky), and technical trickery, it becomes clear that the perspective is in fact retrospective.
Early in the drama, we hear a letter read by a mature person – perhaps Alice’s older self – telling Alice that she can cope. At the end, the same voice reads again, “Sometimes the clouds descend for no reason,” yet assuring Alice, “we will tame our demons.” My only grumble was that this voiceover didn’t seem to have been recorded by an actor, but again, this was an unfair assessment. I will address this shortly.
This was a busy production, with an incredible range of styles and emotions, which the youngsters approached with a concentrated effort. Often when effort is focused on movement and timing, the importance of facial expressions gets lost. That said, the characters of Tweedledum and Tweedledee got this absolutely right, bringing the humour of the roles fully to life. Similarly, at the ‘tea party,’ the whole cast really came alive – partly due to the swinging up-beat of the accompanying music, ‘Jumpin’ Jive.’
While I’m loathed to single out a performer in a youth production, Olive Turner who played the ‘main’ Alice (there were other younger incarnations) really carried the piece. Being on stage for almost the entire performance, she brought poise and maturity to the role.
Another important inspiration was the artwork of Martin Hyde, which Alice revealed at the end of the piece, on the reverse side of the huge mirrors that had provided an important stage effect throughout. A lot of work had gone into this show, and I was keen to speak with one of the adults responsible. It was then I found out who had done the letter voiceover
It was the voice of Debi Hedderwick, Artistic Director of Wirksworth INdependDance. I then learned that none of the youngsters have auditioned, and that the process of creating the work was wholly collaborative between the Debi and the young people. This company is an inclusive and inspirational group of people who clearly believe in the transformative power of learning through art.
The point of this letter to Alice is that it’s not only an adult talking to their former child, but also – quite rightly – Debi Hedderwick writing to all young people, “to tell you I’m proud of you.” And so she should be.