Alice in Pantoland

Dec 8 2023 | By More

★★★★☆     Wonderful fun

Church Hill Theatre: Wed 6 – Sat 9 Dec 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

Alice in Pantoland, from Balerno Theatre Company at the Church Hill, is a traditional pantomime experience crammed full of delights.

It does not necessarily look that way at first, however. Writer-director Sheryn Ali follows the recent trend by taking the central idea from Lewis Carroll, but jettisoning the storyline of the original to present a kind of sequel.

Tamara Irving and the Alice in Pantoland ensemble. Pic: Darren Johnson

Alice, eager to return to Wonderland, instead finds herself in Pantoland, which is populated by Disney fairytale princesses and faces familiar from pantomime. An assortment of Wonderland and Looking Glass characters are also there, including the Queen of Hearts, who will start chopping off heads if the recipe for her favourite jam tarts is not found. Which is unlikely, since she has ripped it up.

The fact that the Caterpillar (who acts as a kind of narrator) says ‘is anyone as confused as I am?’ before providing a necessary recap very early on, shows that the plot is something of a mess. Luckily, as so often in panto, it is merely incidental.

That recap, however, comes after a less than impressive opening. Rather than a big production number, we get a Zoom call between Wonderland characters, featuring an infodump concerning that unwise plot, as well as some jokes that would have landed much more successfully a couple of years back.


The use of the original material is also somewhat inconsistent. A certain familiarity with the story is still necessary, otherwise the unexplained rabbit-hole and ‘drink me’ potion sequences would just be baffling.

A scene from Alice in Pantoland. Pic: Darren Johnson

However, so much of the rest is simply wonderful. The musical numbers are typically eclectic – where else will you find Demi Lovato side by side with Cabaret and Chas & Dave? – well performed, and never outstay their welcome.

The huge ensemble of both adults and children is cleverly used. On the rare occasions when everyone is on stage, it is just too crowded to work properly, but the smaller groups give full expression to Darren Johnson’s expressive choreography. MD Neil Metcalfe and his band are thoroughly impressive throughout, with James McCutcheon’s arrangements done justice.

Kirsten Keggie is a melodic Alice, leading her featured numbers with authority as well as negotiating a potentially tricky, Irn Bru-caused switch in accent. Anne Mackie’s Queen of Hearts is every inch the traditional pantomime villain as well as possessing an enviably strong singing voice, with Cole Buchan’s Jack an ideal foil to the Queen’s more expansive presence.

energy and pizzaz

There are probably too many other characters on display for them all to make much of a mark – for example, it is not always easy to work out why the Disney princesses are there at all. However, Lyndsey Anderson, Susanna Anderson, Amy Lindsay, Amy Tulloch and Marcie Robertson play them with energy and pizzaz.

Anne Mackie and members of the Alice in Pantoland ensemble. Pic: Darren Johnson

The Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit do have enough stage time to establish their characters. After entering to Wilkommen, Jessica Russell’s Hatter does come over as more like Cabaret’s ghoulish MC, but has undeniable impact. Tamara Irving’s Rabbit has a frenetic energy, as well as some of the production’s requisite share of near-the-knuckle jokes.

Laurie Cameron-Back’s Caterpillar (alternating the role with Julie McGarvey) is a wonderfully dry and sardonic creation.

comic timing

The younger featured performers all have real confidence and an excellent command of comic timing. Roman Mitchell (Dormouse, alternating with Beth Willcox), Lillie Paul (March Hare, alternating with Bethan Williamson) and Emeli Wight (Cheshire Cat, alternating with Anna Dorward) all impress.

George Mackie with Regan Walker and Fay Marshall in Alice in Pantoland. Pic: Darren Johnson

There is little doubt, however, about the production’s strongest suit. The traditional comedy set pieces (some of them very traditional indeed) are handled with assurance and genuine skill. George Mackie’s Duchess is genuinely as good a Dame as you will see anywhere – relishing even the most obvious of punchlines, building up an instant rapport with the audience, and giving the character that real sympathy combined with comic bite that is the mark of the best Dames.

old-fashioned comedy business

While Mackie simply owns the stage, there is no doubt that a lot of the character’s success is down to the support of Regan Walker and Fay Marshall as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. The trio’s scenes together are an absolute joy, with a great deal of old-fashioned comedy business leavened with the odd up-to-date remark.

The tongue-twister routine is the undoubted highlight, being as good as could possibly be imagined, but every time the three of them are together the heart just sings.

A scene from Alice in Pantoland. Pic: Darren Johnson

Not all of the comedy works quite as well. As so often in panto, with its scattergun approach to humour, there is some humour that fails to land.

The climactic audience participation number also falls comparatively flat; there are just too many people on stage for it to work, and consequently the deliberate confusion these numbers rely on, with the piling up of objects, looks more like actual confusion. By this stage, moreover, the perennial panto problem of an overlong second half starting to drag a little has also surfaced.

excellently paced

Such mis-steps are few, however. Kirsty Dewar’s understated set and Max Jones’s video wall provide a backdrop to Ali’s ever-fluid, excellently paced direction. MM Sound and Lighting provide assured tech, and there is even some aerial work courtesy of Phoenix Flying.

There is no denying the ambition and scope of this production, or the rosy glow it achieves. After an initial hiccup caused by the over-complicated premise, it settles down to be very good indeed.

Running time: Two hours and 25 minutes (including one interval)
Church Hill Theatre, Morningside Rd, EH10 4DR
Wednesday 6 – Saturday 9 December 2023
Evenings 7.30 pm; Matinees Fri, Sat 2.30 pm
Run sold out.
Balerno Theatre Company website:

A scene from Alice in Pantoland. Pic: Darren Johnson


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