Alice in Wonderland: Join her


publicity photo for East Van Panto: Alice in Wonderland

Amanda Sum, Mark Chavez, and Raugi Yu in costumes by Barbara Clayden: you want to see this. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

Covid, climate change, and November are conspiring to deplete my capacity for joy. I know I’m not alone in my exhaustion and dread. So the East Van Panto comes as a sorely-needed gift this year, a celebration of life — of community and fun.

Now in its ninth iteration, the East Van Panto has earned its place as one of the best-loved holiday traditions in Vancouver — and this year’s show is a knockout.

In writer Sonja Bennett’s take on Alice in Wonderland, the ten-year-old title character sets off in pursuit of the White Rabbit, who’s wearing a sandwich board advertising free cellphones. When Alice finally meets the Queen of Hearts, she finds the Queen’s name is Jess Cheetos. The Queen runs a company very much like Amazon, which, of course, belongs to Jeff Bezos. As she runs amok in Grandview Woodland Wonderland, the Queen destroys local businesses, controls consumers through the use of cookies, and refuses to let her workers take pee breaks.

Political commentary is part of the stuff of pantos, which are also kid-friendly. That works here, too. What kid doesn’t love a good pee joke? And, in a piece of wordplay that will tickle every six-year-old brain, this Queen of Hearts is also the Queen of Farts.

There’s absurdity for grown-ups, too: in a stroke of genius, the Mad Hatter’s tea party becomes a COPE meeting: at the drop of a hat, they’re ready to protest anything.

Dawn Petten is perhaps the perfect panto performer: goofy but sincere. There’s a running gag about how Petten is, perhaps … miscast in the role: “You like an old little baby lady.” It’s great to see Petten’s agile face register annoyance with remarks like this then, like a cartoon character’s, pop back into shape for the bright adventure of the next moment.

Playing the Cheshire Cat and the Dormouse, Amanda Sum is also remarkable. There’s something about her that’s just so cool: I think it’s the understatement with which she combines vulnerability and absurdity. And then there’s her smoky, Billie Eilish-kinda voice.

I also had a good time with Mark Chavez, who’s playing the Duchess (the Queen’s flunky) and the Mad Hatter. Chavez takes absurdity — the Duchess’s constipated speech patterns; the Mad Hatter’s whistling Ss — and goes big with it, while staying so casual you feel like he’s your best friend and he just happens to be hilarious.

I could go on: there isn’t a weak link in the cast. Let me just sing the praises of one more actor. Ghazal Azarbad’s Queen is the diva of divas, confidently chewing the scenery as if it were a light snack.

John Webber’s set is as bright as storybook watercolours and the costumes are trademark Barbara Clayden. I’m in love with the Dormouse’s tail. Just wait, you’ll see.

The witty script hits a speed bump towards the end: for Alice and her allies, defeating the Queen means vanquishing the evils of online alienation and consumerism. Because this battle is about algorithms, the action gets more than a bit abstract.

But, guided by Meg Roe’s sure-handed direction, the show is terrific, and its resolution, which is about the empowerment of kids, is lovely. We hear recorded voices of actual kids. They say things like, “My name’s Tina. I’m six years old and I can do it.” If you find yourself unmoved by this, go see East Van Panto: Alice in Wonderland. Like the Grinch’s heart, yours will grow three sizes larger — and, with it, your capacity for joy.

EAST VAN PANTO: ALICE IN WONDERLAND By Sonja Bennett. Directed by Meg Roe. Music. By Veda Hille. A Theatre Replacement production presented by The Cultch. At the York Theatre on Friday, November 26. Running until January 2. Tickets.



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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.


  1. A question or two if I may. It was a musical with folks singing live to a live band, how did it sound? I rarely read reviews mentioning the sound unless there was a problem like missed cues or a failed mic. Also who was the very talented Sound Designer that was responsible for delivering another brand new musical to Vancouver?

    • Colin Thomas says:

      Hi Kyra,

      The sound designer is Brad Danyluk and the show sounds just fine.
      When writing a review, I comment on the elements that are most salient to my experience. In this case, sound design wasn’t among them.


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