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Peripatetic Dining with Alice

I first heard about the bril­liant peo­ple at Arti­choke Trust through see­ing the TV cov­er­age of their 2009 Lumiere event in Durham (and appar­ent­ly there’s anoth­er one lat­er this year).

Arti­choke describe them­selves as “a cre­ative com­pa­ny that works with artists to invade our pub­lic spaces and put on extra­or­di­nary and ambi­tious events that live in the mem­o­ry for­ev­er”, and based on their lat­est event (“extrav­a­gan­za” in fact is not too strong a word), Din­ing with Alice, which runs until 21st May 2011, they have suc­ceed­ed in that goal once again. If you’re read­ing this before the end of the run, do try and get tick­ets if you can – but be sure to wrap up warm­ly if you attend.

Din­ing with Alice is pre­sent­ed as part of the Nor­folk & Nor­wich Fes­ti­val, around the gor­geous 15th cen­tu­ry pri­vate house Els­ing Hall in Nor­folk (see view of the North Front, left). Arti­choke have tak­en over the exten­sive and almost labyrinthine gar­dens and turned them into a won­der­land of the­atri­cal expe­ri­ences and al fres­co din­ing. As to the con­cept, Direc­tor Hilary West­lake sug­gests that the event is the answer to the ques­tion, “Just what hap­pened to all the char­ac­ter’s in Alice’s adven­tures when they were no longer need­ed in her dreams?” It’s in fact a re-stag­ing of an event orig­i­nal­ly cre­at­ed for the Sal­is­bury Fes­ti­val in 1999, when it was com­mis­sioned by now-Arti­choke co-direc­tor Helen Mar­riage when she was the Fes­ti­val’s director.

Peri­patet­ic din­ing, inspired both by the seat­ing arrange­ments at the Mad Hat­ter’s Tea Par­ty (where you keep mov­ing round the seats at the table) and by Lewis Car­rol­l’s inter­est in math­e­mat­ics, is at the heart of Din­ing with Alice, which is punc­tu­at­ed (and con­clud­ed) by a series of amus­ing the­atri­cal pre­sen­ta­tions from a small cast of around 10 “Hosts” – in the form of the famil­iar White and Red Queens, the Queen (and King) of Hearts, the Duchess, the White Knight, the White Rab­bit, the Mad Hat­ter, Twee­dle­dum & Dee,  but­ler Mr Alas­tair, and no less than half-a-dozen Alices – includ­ing “Alice After Won­der­land”, “Alice in Won­der­land”, a Tall Alice and some Tiny Alices. Plus a host of oth­ers, notably the “Tur­ban Team”, about whom, more in a moment. Most, if not all the per­form­ers are from the East of Eng­land. The food is pro­vid­ed by Bom­pas and Parr with the aid of City Col­lege Norwich.

To begin with, you walk into and through the immac­u­late gar­dens via a cir­cuitous route to find a mar­quee, with crisps and Vic­to­ri­an accom­pa­ni­ments, Hen­drick­’s Gin and a live string quar­tet, and have a wan­der around, talk to peo­ple – I was lucky enough to have a brief chat with Arti­choke co-direc­tor Nicky Webb, whom I met orig­i­nal­ly in the Cam­bridge Pic­ture House bar thanks to Bill Thomp­son – read the fas­ci­nat­ing pro­gramme and find your name on the curi­ous­ly-named “Seat­ing Plan”. I say “curi­ous­ly”, because there is, in fact, no indi­ca­tion where you’ll be sit­ting. Instead, there’s a colour and a num­ber – and you notice that your colour/number com­bi­na­tion is dif­fer­ent from those of any­one you arrived with. Hmmm. After the guests have all arrived, the main char­ac­ters march in to the accom­pa­ni­ment of a brass band and the first part of the event begins.

It turns out that the colour and num­ber iden­ti­fy the wait­er (“serv­er” is not the right word, as they don’t serve the food) who will lead you, per­son­al­ly, to your places dur­ing the course of the evening: the for­mer indi­cat­ing the colour of their tur­ban and the lat­ter a num­ber the mem­ber of the “Tur­ban Team” holds and announces. You are sep­a­rat­ed from any­one else in your par­ty as you go off, fol­low­ing your wait­er on a cir­cuitous route through the dark­en­ing gar­dens, while the sounds of Won­der­land are heard around you in the forms of the calls of strange birds and crea­tures echo­ing across the lawns and emerg­ing sud­den­ly from near­by bush­es. You have a chance to get to know the oth­ers who have the same colour and num­ber as your­self – I was lucky enough to find myself in the com­pa­ny of three women with whom I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to chat on our walk, before being sep­a­rat­ed as we were shown our tables for the first course. The main char­ac­ters flit among the tables as you eat, engag­ing in con­ver­sa­tions or not, until your wait­er col­lects you for a fur­ther intri­cate walk to the next course. The tables are lit­tered with strange things: lit­tle cards with rid­dles, labels, and oth­er para­pher­na­lia. You are indeed led into a kind of Won­der­land, with a mar­vel­lous fan­tas­tic atmos­phere unlike any­thing you’ve pre­vi­ous­ly experienced.

The evening was a series totalling six cours­es of excel­lent food, each tak­en at a dif­fer­ent table, and after the first course, with one or more dif­fer­ent peo­ple pre­vi­ous­ly unknown to me – a tru­ly won­der­ful idea and I’m pleased to have enjoyed sev­er­al excel­lent dis­cus­sions over din­ner. Soon you find your­self in the com­pa­ny of the rest of your par­ty, among oth­ers, and ulti­mate­ly you’re led to a din­ing area that’s laid out almost like a con­ven­tion­al restau­rant – except that it’s under the sky, and in front of you is a stage and live musi­cians before the South Front of the beau­ti­ful­ly illu­mi­nat­ed Els­ing Hall (see main pho­to) – for the dessert and finale (above). The din­ing area was actu­al­ly built out over the moat.

There’s a cer­tain amount of walk­ing involved, of which you should be aware (appar­ent­ly arrange­ments can be made if your mobil­i­ty is lim­it­ed, but I don’t know the details) and the night we were there, the tem­per­a­ture dropped to around 6º Cel­sius, so do wrap up well. But do be sure not to miss this mar­vel­lous event. Con­grat­u­la­tions to Arti­choke and the whole team involved for a quite remark­able and unmiss­able expe­ri­ence. Def­i­nite­ly the best event I’ve attend­ed for some time.

Label attached to a tiny phial