Here’s a secret I never thought I’d share.
I’m just not that into Alice in Wonderland.
I mean, I like the idea of it a lot, and I often love artefacts that are explicit in their debt to Lewis Carroll’s buttoned-down yet mind-expanding story – from John Tenniel’s original illustrations to the beer made by my favourite local brewery, Mad Hatter. But if I have to plough through that relentlessly playful prose or watch yet another screen adaptation, the result is always the same: my eyelids inevitably start to sag.
So imagine my trepidation as I peruse the literature accompanying The Possible Impossible House at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre. It promises a journey through a house ruled by its own dreamlike illogic, a trip punctuated by talking mice, rowdy birds and dancing toy soldiers. I can’t help thinking it sounds a bit similar to Alice in style and theme, and although I’m excited to be seeing the first show for children by acclaimed experimental company Forced Entertainment, I’m nervous that its plot might cross the line that divides the surreally unexpected from the random. Because in my experience, in worlds where anything can happen, it’s easy for real tension to ebb away.
It turns out, however, that The Possible Impossible House – which has been devised by the company and directed by Tim Etchells – is about the telling of a story as much as it’s about the details of the adventure itself.
In its original incarnation at the Barbican in 2014, it was performed by Forced Entertainment co-founders Richard Lowdon and Cathy Naden. At the Unity, Naden is joined instead by Claire Marshall, another original team member. Marshall stands behind a long wooden table while Naden takes a seat at a desk filled with an eclectic collection of bits and bobs, from a keyboard and microphone to wine glasses and a stick of celery.
The stage is minimally dressed with cardboard boxes – the pile in the corner hints at nothing more glamorous than the loading bay of a branch of Aldi – but the rich crimson curtain at the back makes for a setting that is unmistakeably theatrical. And Marshall begins simply telling a story, addressing the audience directly. Except this is not a tale that happens to somebody else. This is a story in which each individual audience member, kids and adults alike, is invited to take on the role of protagonist.
“You find yourself in a corridor in the possible impossible house…” says Marshall, and I realise immediately that Alice in Wonderland doesn’t have a monopoly on surreal exploration. What this suddenly reminds me of most is not that classic piece of literature but an old text-based adventure game as enjoyed on computers from long ago – something like Lords of Time on the Amiga or BBC Micro. With its textual descriptions and branching decisions, we are drawn into the story as participants rather than observers – although audience interaction isn’t really part of this game.
Heavily narrated it may be, but this is not to say that there is no visual accompaniment to this piece. As Marshall relates the tale, she holds up large off-cuts of cardboard on which she catches the light cast by projected drawings and crude animations – never over-illustrating the scene, but enough to give the production a sense of style and mood.
Many of the characters we meet look doodled and rough – our first encounter is with a girl scribbled in the pages of an old algebra book. These are the creations of Forced Entertainment’s collaborator, the visual artist Vlatka Horvat. Her sketchily drawn and jerkily animated characters have the feel of classic Oliver Postgate-style children’s telly – a hint of Ivor the Engine perhaps, or a smattering of Noggin the Nog. Not references likely to be recognised by the kids in the audience, I admit – nor, I dare say, by Horvat herself given that she is Croatian – but to me it seems a wonderfully apt low-tech style for this stripped back, bare bones narration.
And then there’s the sound. Aural effects play a big role in this show, sometimes enhancing the mood but at other times deliberately subverting it, and the ingenious use of these off-kilter noises becomes one of the evening’s most enjoyable aspects.
All the sounds are created by Naden, from the occasional atmospheric keyboard line or haunting finger-on-wine-glass squeal, to more obtuse spot effects made with an assortment of everyday objects. Sometimes she gets the noise exactly right while at other times her insistence that “I’ve got just the right sound for a mouse chewing some chewing gum” proves hilariously wide of the mark. As she stuffs her mouth with celery and crunches it next to the microphone, Marshall can hardly contain her frustration.
“Cathy, it’s chewing gum, not cornflakes.”
This brittle interaction is typical of the exchanges between Marshall and Naden, and it soon becomes clear that our adventure through the possible impossible house isn’t the only story being played out here. Implicit in the verbal back-and-forth between the two performers is another tale – one of haughtiness and control on Marshall’s part, and of eagerness to please on the part of Naden.
Are they siblings perhaps – one older and serious, the other younger and more playful? Or just best friends increasingly irritated by each other’s foibles? Whatever the truth, the relationship adds an engaging comic layer that develops in surprising fashion, and hints at the ways in which stories can twist and turn depending on the decisions made by those who tell them.
Running at just over an hour, The Possible Impossible House is a beautifully-formed and beguiling piece of theatre that never takes an obvious turn when something surprising or subversive might do instead. And while the actual wonderland-like odyssey doesn’t necessarily grip me right to the end (as with Alice, I think my grown-up love of the rational has scuppered my ability to truly lose myself in this kind of tale), there’s so much more going on here that even someone as irritatingly over-analytical as me can enjoy the show’s deliriously playful ride.
Not that the subtle deconstruction of storytelling techniques seems to be uppermost in the minds of the kids who see the play alongside me. As a little boy along the row loudly whispers to his mum, “This is so funny!”.
It isn’t the only way you might describe this excellent show. But there’s no doubt about it, he’s right.
Photos by Hugo Glendinning
The Possible Impossible House was at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool. For more information about Forced Entertainment, click here.
To read Damon’s interview with Cathy, click here