Alice's Adventures Underground at The Vaults at Waterloo

Alice in Wonderland is one of those stories I know snippets of, but not necessarily in the right order. So when my friend Billi (who writes the excellent View From The Circle blog, which I highly recommend to all fans of theatre) asked if I wanted to come along to a press event for the revival of Les Enfants Terribles' Alice's Adventures Underground, returning to The Vaults after a sell-out run in 2015, I jumped at the chance to find out more about the story and its topsy-turvy world.

After arriving we went into the waiting area, which has been beautifully designed - it's full of nooks and crannies to sit and just drink in the atmosphere, backed by a soundtrack of retrofied Britney Spears hits and Red Hot Chilli Peppers whilst acrobats with dodo masks do tricks on hoops suspended from the ceiling. As you do.

Before the show started we managed to each grab a cocktail from Smith & Sinclair; I went for the Cheshire Cat, a mix of gin and green tea in a jam jar with a lemon sherbet lolly that supposedly makes the drink change colour when you use it to stir. Sadly my pictures are a bit darker than I'd like but it did seem to go a little lighter! Food meanwhile came from Saucy Chip, whose mac and cheese was excellent - sufficiently cheesy and with breadcrumbs for an extra bit of texture. I only regret not going for the version with added pancetta.


...and after

Soon enough we were called to begin our journey, and headed off down a corridor and into Wonderland...

The sets are so beautifully realised, particularly the opening study sequence - there's bookshelves coming out of the walls, things in jars and photographs being developed, all set to slightly creepy music. I also really loved the mix of old and new technology, particularly the second room representing Alice falling down the rabbit hole, which (after venturing down a tunnel of books and playing cards) is set up to look like a zoetrope but involves some amazingly mesmerising ceiling graphics. There's also a great use of forced perspective shortly afterwards in the 'eat me/drink me' sequence.

There are apparently 24 different storylines you can play through which depend on your various choices as well as being completely random, such as which suit of cards you are assigned. I was with the diamonds and we were lucky enough to tick off all the key points of the book (at least from my memory). From talking to Billi, who was a heart, everyone visits some of the same rooms, such as the Tweedledum and Tweedledee reciting 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' (which included some great Beatles gags - although I will warn you that you need to duck!) and the chaotic kitchen with the Cook and the Duchess. The tea party scene is also a particular highlight, with coloured tea fountains running down the table, a glamorously dishevelled March Hare and a Mad Hatter whose showmanship and command of the audience was utterly riveting, in a way where you're not quite sure what will happen next yet can't stop watching.

Also the puppets are incredible. The Cheshire Cat in particular was a highlight - during one scene shortly after meeting her, which involved standing in a dark tunnel looking through peepholes, I felt something brush past me, turned and there she was. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it was an utterly magical moment. The frog and the butterfly are in more of a traditional style but very well done too, and the puppet suit for the White Rabbit is just amazing - kudos to him for putting on such a non-stop performance whilst contending with moveable ears!

Special mention must go to Alexander Wolfe, AKA The Mock Turtle, whose song 'The Mirror and the Moon' had the entire audience spellbound. In fact all the music is wonderful; if there was a soundtrack album available I'd snap it up in a heartbeat. Hint hint to any merchandising folk reading this! The Queen of Hearts, who appears in the final courtroom scene, is great too, with shades of Miranda Richardson as Queenie in Blackadder II about her (I also particularly loved her glittery red pout).

After the performance we were lucky enough to go back into the Mad Hatter's Tea Party scene and talk to some of the cast, including the Joker of Diamonds (who had been my guide through the whole experience) and the Dormouse. I was seriously impressed​ to learn that the actors play any of four different parts depending on the night; how they keep it all straight in such a frantic, action-packed show I have absolutely no idea.

Alice holding court.

Overall I absolutely loved Alice's Adventures Underground. Provided you're willing to go along with it, it's a show that rewards you whether you know the book backwards or are a complete newcomer. The level of detail is just incredible and the performances​ are seriously impressive. I want to go back already!

Alice's Adventures Underground runs at The Vaults until 23rd September and tickets start at £31.50 per adult.

Ramblin' Roots Revue, Bucks New University Students' Union, High Wycombe

NB: I won tickets to this event through the lovely folks at W21 Music. All views and opinions in this post are my own.

A version of this review previously appeared on Entertainment Focus on Sunday 9th April 2017.

As country music becomes increasingly mainstream in the UK, there are more events popping up all over the country showcasing the best of British talent. This weekend it was the turn of Ramblin' Roots Revue, a new event with a particular focus on Americana-influenced and more traditional country acts. I was lucky enough to win tickets to the event through W21 Music so trundled up to High Wycombe on a gorgeous sunny Saturday hoping to hear some fantastic music.

The event took place over two stages at Bucks New University Students' Union, which I have to say was incredibly impressive - a huge events space with a stage on one side and a more traditional bar-style setup on the other. It's certainly a far cry from my old students' union!

After grabbing a pint of local brewery Rebellion's IPA made specially for the festival, I caught the end of Paul McClure and the Local Heroes' set and have to say they were highly impressive. The room was absolutely packed – indicating a strong local following, which many of the acts at the festival seemed to have – and the band did a great job of keeping the crowd entertained, laughing and joking with them as well as encouraging a singalong on 'My Little Ray of Sunshine' (which has been stuck in my head ever since).

Next up were Legends of Country, who I'd been keen to see at C2C this year. Their set was packed full of twang and cheeky lyrics, putting a uniquely British spin on country traditions in tracks like 'Gone Leaving' and 'That's What We Talk About When We Talk About Country'. The standout songs for me though were the ballads 'Saturday Dads', looking at the relationship between a divorced father and his son, and 'Long Way Back From A Dream', the tale of a Welsh darts player on the road to Frimley Green.

I'd heard lots of good things about The Rosellys ahead of their set and they didn't disappoint. Their traditional style married beautifully with the gorgeous harmonies of boyfriend and girlfriend Rebecca and Simon on songs such as 'A Thousand Miles' and 'On The Porch'. Rebecca's lovely sweet voice also stood out on 'Don't Let The Whiskey Win', 'No More Dark Days' and a fantastic high note on 'Don't Pull Away'. They had fantastic chemistry together which shone through in their banter with each other and the crowd, as well as in the lovely 'Something Special' which Rebecca wrote for Simon's birthday. I really loved their mix of humorous lyrics and darker subject matter too.

After a quick break for an excellent chicken burger from Bandit Street Food and ice cream from The Works, I headed back inside for the evening session. Loud Mountains have been one of my favourite UK country acts since I saw them at the Holiday Hoedown in December, and they've come on leaps and bounds since. Despite an ill-advised choice of shirts on the hottest day of the year, brothers Kevin and Shawn showcased their fantastic harmonies and the sheer range of styles they can cover, with everything from rockier numbers like 'Gasoline' to more stripped-back slower songs such as 'Eloise', via the nostalgia of 'Too Far Gone'. They got an incredibly enthusiastic response from the crowd and I can't wait to see what they do next.

Then it was time for Case Hardin, who've become something of a staple at these types of events lately. Their lead singer has a great bluesy tone to his voice with just a touch of growl where needed, and I really liked the elements of showmanship they brought to their set with touches of different styles such as 50s rock and roll. The driving rhythms and rocky guitar on 'Jesus Christ Tomorrow Morning Do I Still Have To Feel This Way' and 'The Streets Are Where The Bars Are (The Bars Are Where The Girls Will Be)' reminded me of The Eagles and it sounded like the kind of music you'd blast from your convertible driving down a desert road. Personally I felt their choice of songs lacked a little variety but it was clear from the audience reaction that that definitely isn't holding them back.

I've been a fan of The Magic Numbers for years so was keen to see what their bassist Michele Stodart could do as a solo act. What really struck me was how she conveyed the emotion in her songs; you could really feel every word on 'Tell Her', 'When Is It Over' and 'Wait Fore Me'. Her guitar playing was great too and I loved watching her rocking out with her band on the more uptempo numbers. Plus she built a great rapport with the crowd, bringing us in closer to her and improvising a riff with her band when she was interrupted by an alarm going off! She was definitely my highlight of the day.

Last but not least, I popped over to see Yola Carter, another act whom I'd heard a lot about but had never seen live before. She has a voice I could listen to all day – beautiful and soaring on songs like 'Home', yet powerful too on the more emotional numbers like 'Orphan Country'. I really liked the balance of songs in her set too; she showed that she could do just as well on uptempo numbers 'Mitch Thompson' and 'Gaslight', whose folky melodies belied their darker lyrics. Sadly due to trains I couldn't stay for her whole set but I'm determined to make it to a full-length show soon.

Overall I really enjoyed my day out at Ramblin' Roots Revue. The event showed the sheer variety of acts the UK country scene has to offer and that there is a thriving and enthusiastic community out there who are willing to embrace it in all its forms. Here's hoping it makes a return next year!