Through the festival looking-glass
It's a world-class theatrical performance including a huge cast of volunteers to create some of the most magical theatre Norfolk has ever seen. STACIA BRIGGS finds out more about Dining with Alice, one of the showpieces of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.
It promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, following in Alice's footsteps as she falls down the rabbit hole and finds herself in the magical Wonderland in the company of the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter.
An army of volunteers have committed their time and enthusiasm to an ambitious project which will see an enchanting corner of Norfolk transformed into Lewis Carroll's imaginary world during NNF11.
Dining with Alice will be an interactive feast for the senses – an enticing Victorian banquet served in the romantic surroundings of the grounds of Elsing Hall, a fairytale 15th century manor house complete with its own moat, serene parkland and formal garden.
It is the latest project from the highly-acclaimed Artichoke Project, who perhaps best known for The Sultan's Elephant, a giant mechanical elephant that weighed 42 tonnes and took 150 people to operate it and became the biggest piece of free theatre ever seen in London.
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Each guest will be transported to Wonderland in an evening which includes a sumptuous alfresco feast created by gastronomic magicians Bompas and Parr in association with students from City College Norwich.
The event will culminate in musical entertainment under the stars… and there are plenty of secrets being kept tightly under wraps which will delight those lucky enough to have a ticket for one of the performances in May.
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As an example of the MI5-like secrecy that surrounds the event, here is a snippet from diningwithalice.co.uk, the official website for the performance.
'At Dining with Alice, guests will be served a four-course dinner, served alfresco amid the clipped hedges and the herbaceous borders. A special, Victorian-style, Alice-inspired menu is being created by Bompas and Parr, a company which designs spectacular food experiences, often working on an architectural scale with cutting edge technology,' it says.
'Bompas and Parr will be working with students from City College Norwich and the nice folk at Frank Dale Foods who will help create this delicious and memorable meal. Seated at a mock-up of a possible table setting – there will eventually be 256 of them – are the director, the producer, the writer, the designer, the costume designer, the production designer, Sam Bompas and Harry Par.
'After an exhaustive discussion about tableware, some dishes are placed before us by Sam and Harry. It would be foolish were I to describe the dishes, for then you might know what you were going to get.
'I must restrict myself, therefore, to observing that the first was velvety, the second piquant, the third darkly pleasing with sharpness the fourth wholesome and nourishing and the fifth possessed of qualities that I had not known were achievable within the terms of this popular yet unassuming foodstuff.'
More than 140 girls and young women applied to play the six Alice in Wonderlands needed for the performance, attending auditions at The Garage in Norwich where they were divided into three age groups.
After warm-up exercises, each spoke a few lines and then showed the producers their happy, sad and angry faces. The main attribute the Alices needed, however, was to be either small or tall to play two different roles.
The lucky girls selected were Hannah Marjoram, aged six, from South Walsham; Chloe Watts, also six, from Great Yarmouth; Nancy Dickinson, seven, from Wymondham; Amelia Mason, eight, from Sprowston, near Norwich; Millie Houchon, 12, from Lowestoft; and Lily Highton, 15, from New Buckenham.
Each will share the role of Alice through the event as her height changes during her journey through Wonderland.
Other volunteers will be guiding the audience through Alice's topsy-turvy world and ensuring that they have an unforgettable night.
Chris Stone will be amongst their number.
'When I heard about the production, it seemed like it would be a really good experience,' said Chris, 26, who works at Norwich Theatre Royal's restaurant.
'Acting and music have been part of my life for a long time – I spent eight years with the Theatre Royal's junior acting course with David Lambert and from then it's been in my blood.
'I've been in NNF productions before, and absolutely loved it. I just enjoy taking part and being involved. We're not entirely sure what we'll be doing on the night yet, and it's all very secretive, which is great fun.
'Eventually, I'd love to be an extra in a movie or on TV. And experience like this will be really helpful.'
Lizzie Meadows, who has her own public relations agency, has also volunteered to take part in the production and is one of the singers, who will help provide musical entertainment on the night.
'I jumped at the chance to take part because it seemed like something really different and exciting to be involved with,' she said.
'I came along to the open audition and we had a lot of fun – we met the team that have put Dining with Alice together and learned about the original performance in Wiltshire more than a decade ago.
'It will be tremendously exciting to work with a production team of the calibre of Artichoke and to get the chance to work with professional actors. This kind of opportunity just doesn't present itself to you in Norfolk very often.
'We're having to keep secrets about what will be happening so that the performance isn't ruined for anyone and so that it will be a big surprise to everyone when they come along.'
Lizzie will be attending choir rehearsals and will be learning compositions off by heart in order to perform them during the extravaganza at Elsing.
'I've not been involved in the Norfolk and Norwich Festival before, other than as an audience member, but I did perform with the Norwich High School for Girls Chamber Choir recently when Hilary Weiland directed us singing Mozart's Requiem.
'I've always been a closet singer in the bath and in the car, but performing in a choir gave me the oomph to do more in the future. I'm really looking forward to Dining with Alice and I think it's going to be absolutely incredible.'
Artichoke's Susie Thornberry is in charge of volunteers for Dining with Alice.
'Volunteers are absolutely crucial to the performance of Dining with Alice,' she said, 'without them, there would be no performance at all!
'We have been recruiting volunteers – singers and non-singers – who will help us to create the topsy-turvy world of Alice in Wonderland and bring the whole event to life.'
Volunteers have joined Artichoke for several workshops and will rehearse closer to the date, including a dress rehearsal at Elsing Hall, where they will run through the evening's entertainment to ensure that it runs like clock-work.
'The volunteers that we're using are going to have an unbelievable amount of fun,' said Susie.
'They'll be helping us to present this madcap world on a really grand scale – it really is something that they'll never have experienced before and will probably never experience again.
'To be part of such an incredible spectacle will be something they'll remember forever. And, of course, they will know all our secrets before anyone else does and that in itself is a treat.'
Hilary Westlake is directing Dining with Alice, which was originally commissioned by the Salisbury Festival and performed in the Larmer Tree Victorian Pleasure Garden in Wiltshire in 1999.
Fiercely protective of the production's secrets, she stressed the importance of the volunteers who will give up their time to bring a slice of surrealism to the heart of Norfolk.
'Volunteers are absolutely vital to us. They will help us to take the audience on a journey through a pleasantly surreal world and to a dinner party with a real difference,' she said.
'We want people to go away having had an experience that they will always remember. Our volunteers will be an essential part of that experience, along with the incredible setting, the costumes and the drama.
'The volunteers we have in Norfolk are all wonderfully different and I am absolutely delighted that they're coming along with us for this incredible journey. It's going to be wonderful.' ? Dining with Alice will be performed at Elsing Hall on May 12-15 and 18-21. Tickets, including dinner, �55, under-26s �15 (limited number) and �85 for VIP packages. The performance suitable for children over the age of 14.