Nkhanise Phiri makes debut role as Alice in the Multi-award-winning company Poltergeist retelling that weaves rap music together with the sights and sounds of Brixton into a hundred-mile-an-hour Christmas adventure.
The story: After an explosive argument with Mum at a Victoria line station, eleven-year-old Alice leaps onto the tube seconds before the doors hiss shut.
Trapped on a train speeding into Nonsense, surrounded by weird and wonderful passengers, and at the mercy of a Queen who won’t relinquish the controls, can Alice turn this train around?
Multi-award-winning company Poltergeist weaves rap music together with the sights and sounds of Brixton into a hundred-mile-an-hour Christmas adventure. This alternative family Christmas show is created by Poltergeist.
Alice – Nkhanise Phiri
Queen of the Line, Chatter, Mum – Toyin Ayedun-Alase
Rabbit, Pigeon – Khai Shaw
Tortoise, Dee, Rat – Rosa Garland
Cat, Dum, Nose – Will Spence
Tell us a bit about what’s exciting about playing this particular character?
Alice in Wonderland is obviously one of those like hugely iconic stories and I don’t know about you, but I haven’t really seen many retellings of it in theatre. Obviously some have existed, but I guess what’s really special about this one is that, Alice is from Brixton and you, get a real sense of who Alice is and where she’s at in her life. So you start off at Brixton underground station and Alice is having an argument with her mom and Alice is 11 in year seven. So that’s like a big change for her. During lockdown, her parents separated even though it was all amicable and everything, but still just that change of like everyday life. All of these big changes are happening. And then she just goes on this huge <laugh> journey that’s set on the London Underground.
And there’s just so much about I guess the changes that happen in life and how that affects how much you feel you want to express yourself. Those moments when you want to lean into that, those moments when you feel like you want to like go back into yourself and do the old things that are you might secretly know are bad or not helpful , it’s just very exciting also, just the fact that she’s young black women and I get to have the honor of like telling that story to lots of people that might not think of Alice Wonderland as a story for, for people like us. It’s just so exciting for me. <laugh>. Yeah.
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Can you tell us a bit of your journey into acting. Did you train professionally?
I’ve always wanted to act, I’d say since I was 11, like <laugh> like Alice. But, just for different reasons, like I guess growing up like, um, my, well, what can I say, like my, in terms of my representation, that came a lot from like TV and film and just thinking about like theater that was like my personal into it. But seeing people that actually did it was from TV and film, but then again even that was like, stuff like that. So Raven or like sister, sister like, um, across the pond kind of stuff. So, um, I like did drama like at school up until a level, but then I made the decision to go and do psychology as like a much more like stable kind of pathway for myself, but still always wanted to do theater. I was always in the drama society, um, <laugh> when I was at uni and it wasn’t until I did um, the lyric ensemble, which is kind of like a nine month part-time process where you get to train and then um, do a two week performance at the end. And often I did that. I was like, oh my gosh, I love this, I want to go back to it. So then after that, the year after I did the National Youth Theater and did their rep program, which is nine months, but a much more intense, like six days a week you go on tour with three productions. Um, and I finished doing that just last year. So this is like my first thingy thing. <laugh> in front of an audience. Yeah. Which is exciting.
Can you tell us a little bit about Alice’s motivation, is it much different from what her motivations would be in the original Alice?
I guess in the original Alice it talked about this a lot with the director, how like, yeah, Alice in the original and this version is kind of thrown into this world that she’s not familiar with. And in the original she’s very much just kind of going, oh, that’s really weird. Why’d you guys do something like that? And like she kind of moves through. The characters don’t change, she doesn’t change and comes out of it and we all just kind of go, oh, that was really cool, iconic imagery. But through this again, like Alice kind of being on that brink of like adolescence and all these big changes, all this emotion that she’s going through and not knowing how to express it. And then there are all these characters that are kind of expressing things in their own way, but also withholding stuff.
And she’s kind of like met with these different opportunities where she gets to learn and change her thinking and how she expresses herself. And especially since she loves to write bars like for art, music and stuff, but she’s very shy in terms of sharing that that’s very much a thing for herself that she does. But so many characters in this play are like, oh, I want to hear that sounds amazing. You write bars that’s sick, let’s listen. And she’s like, oh my gosh. No. And not to give too much away, but Alice starts to become more comfortable with herself and how she gets to express herself, which is just like a really nice journey to go on with herself and all the other characters.
without giving too much away, how, how does hip hop play into this, production?
Thinking of like the original, like Alison Wonderland, like my own personal is from like the Disney movie, but just remembering like a lot of the word play and the rhymes and just the funny things that just sound like the words that sound like words, but they’re not words. And I think that the hip-hop and rap in this play really is just like a nice marrying of being able to use like that word play that lyricism, that musicality, to bring out both the wackiness of the world, of the London underground of how Alice likes to express herself, which is just like really exciting. All like, kudos to Lyricist and Rapperturg – Gerel Falconer.
How about your lyrics?
Yes. Honestly, well I <laugh>, but when I heard about it, I was, I was so excited to do it. But then obviously hearing about it, reading it in your room is one thing to performing it, making sure that you’re hitting every words, still giving that emotion. So like, thankfully I’m out of place now where I feel much more confident with that. But it’s been, it’s really hard <laugh> because Jerome has written some, he’s written some stuff <laugh>, which is really cool.
Are there any challenges, how do you prepare for a role like this?
Yes, definitely , I guess like when you look at the surface level of like, this is a character who’s like going into something and being, oh my God, this is crazy, this is weird. She’s basically going through so many emotions and it can be really easy to just be to hit the audience with, I’m just gonna give you everything at 10. This is crazy. But like in life sometimes when we’re going through stuff and experiencing stuff, it all comes in like in waves and ebbs and flows and I think kind of helping to kind of like every day with every scene we’ll always just go through like, what does Alice want? what is driving her? What is she finding curious, what are the things that make her want to lean into stuff? Like yeah, at this point we’re really like looking at the detail, which is just really helping not make it just a me screaming on stage for like an hour and a half <laugh>
And without stating obvious, obviously Alice is black in this production, so how does that feel?
Oh my God is absolutely amazing. Absolutely amazing. the other day we had some young kids come in to watch the show just as like a little preview and there were a few black girls in the, in the group that came to see the play. And just hearing what they said, they even drew like little illustrations as well of me just hearing what they said about how like they resonated with the character in different moments. It was just absolutely I can’t ex express it because like, especially being at that age, remembering where I was and like not having certain types of representation and just like how much of like a fully-fledged like living character that she’s like, she’s funny, she’s energetic, she’s witty, she’s funny, but she’s also like an 11 year old who sometimes like loses her temper and doesn’t know how to <laugh> communicate with her mum or anyone else. Like, but the neighbours still like, I see that human and I like her. She’s cool. <laugh>. It’s absolutely amazing. Yeah, really an honour. Yes definitely.
So being this is like your debut play. So what’s it like working with a director for the stage and how are you finding that interaction?
Jack is really amazing. He, the fact that like, this is really like a devising process. You know, sometimes you can come into a room and a director is like, this is my vision and I just need you to try and fit into what I have in my mind. But Jack is really just giving me space, to explore, to figure stuff out. Cause I can be really hard on myself. Like in week one we’ll do a like a scene and I’ll be, ah, damn, I didn’t get it right. And he’s like, it’s okay. It’s, it’s rehearsal. That’s what we’re, we’re gonna do it again. And it’s probably gonna change when we’re doing the show in previews. It’s gonna change. Like that’s fine, but you’re finding it and you’re putting your work in, which is really good.
I think what’s hard for me sometimes I’m quite I don’t want to say I’m not like a typical actor, but like a lot of actors I find can be really like, like extroverted and really like good with how they express themselves. But me, I think similar to Alice acting as like a craft that I really get to express myself when I’m doing it <laugh>. So I’ve had like inner battles where I’ve been oh man, maybe I didn’t express that the way I wanted to when we’re having discussions. But then again Jack is always like, hey, just because you’re thinking something, some people need to think stuff out aloud, some people need to do it. Some people need a day to think over it. Like every process is valid, which is, yeah, it’s great. <laugh>.
So, who inspires you in terms of acting scene?
I love Whoopi Goldberg and I love, Raven Simone. Those were my first big, big inspiration, for acting when I was younger. They were just so engaging, so captivating, just amazing. They just command a space, command a room like no other, like sister act and that’s a Raven is my bread and butter. I love it. <laugh>.
Who are some of the other characters of Alice who um, bounce off? Um, Addison. How, how have they been changed? Slightly?
This is set on the London Underground Wonderland. So a lot of the characters are inspired by the kind of people or things that you might see on the London Underground. So, for example, now in Alice in Wonderland there’s the Mad Hatter, but in this version, we have the Chatter <laugh> and then there’s a Queen, but she’s Queen of the Line.
So, what would you say to audiences to why they should come and see this?
I think this is the first play in Briton that has been put on, I want to say for either 40 ish or 70 ish years between that period. But it’s been a couple decades since like Brixton has had a theatre production like this before. So that’s one really exciting, thing to think about in terms of like supporting like theatre in South London. Um, also the fact that like there is a young black woman leading the show, which is very iconic of this very like, well known play. The fact that this is like very like turning it on its head in terms of everything that’s going on, um, and just how dynamic the show is. I think like audiences might come in expecting something, but it’s really just supreme, it’s just the feast for the senses completely with the music, with the movement, all of like the designers who have been involved from like costume to set, to lighting, to sound for anything else that I might have missed out on. It is just so exciting. I’m finding it hard to find the words to express it, but <laugh> yeah, it’s just like unlike anything you might have seen before in terms of like family shows. There is something for everyone in this show and it takes you through like a whole ride.
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