The Queen of Hearts, the Red Queen, the White Queen, the Rabbit and the King of Hearts, Dining with Alice
Just what happened to the characters in Alice’s adventures when they were no longer needed in her dreams?

I went with five friends to find out as they hosted a special banquet at Elsing Hall, Norfolk. This banquet, Dining with Alice, was organised by Artichoke and Sky Arts, as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival.

Alices looking across the Lake, Dining with Alice
Built in 1470, Elsing Hall‘s landscape and architecture formed a great backdrop for the evening. On the way to the dinner reception, we bumped into Alice who was hiding in the maze. We also saw a lot of long dining tables, reminscent of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, scattered around the beautiful gardens. ‘Is this where we are going to eat?’ I wondered with excitement. {If you are going to attend, stop reading now as I am about to reveal some of the surprises}

Dining with Alice
The Queens and Kings arriving, Dining with Alice
While we waited for the Royals to appear (photo above), we nibbled on the Plungent Fleck (Kettle game chips and Victorian Dips, photo below) with the Hendrick’s Buck (Gin and Ginger Ale) in hand. The sweet and salty dipping sauce was refreshing though a little sticky on fingers. My friends noted that the drink was a little weak in alcohol. It did not bother me as I went for the non-alcoholic version anyway.

The Plungent Fleck (Kettle game chips and Victorian Dips), Dining with Alice
Even though it was forecasted to rain heavily, the sun came out to everyone’s relief. It was a bit chilly but no one complained. It was a brave and ambitious decision to host this event mostly outdoors as the English Spring could be beautiful but also unpredictable.

The Queen and King of Hearts, the Red Queen, the White Queen, the Duchess, the White Knight, the White Rabbit and Tweedle Dum & Dee marched proudly through the crowd as they entered the marquee we were in, with Mad Hatter taking the lead. Mr Alastair , Maitre D’ of the night, has been talking to us and we knew that a couple of events were to unfold before dinner was served.

The Queen of Hearts with Alice, Dining with Alice
Alice After Wonderland emerged from the gathered crowd (photo above) to the dismay of the Queen of Hearts, who had just found her lost music script and had authorised the beheading of the boy who found them. Luckily, they did not argue for long as it was time for dinner. Mr Alastair blew the golden horn to signal the moment. Everyone turned around to see what happened. I was too petite to see but fortunately Tweedle Dum & Dee asked me to follow him. Moving through the crowd, a huge Turban Team (photo) started to run towards us.

The Turban Team, Dining with Alice

What an entrance (see video above) they made! Each member of the Turban team was colour coded and numbered. They were actually our waiters for the night. Upon arrival, we found out from our ‘seating plan’ that most of us were given a different colour and number. This meant most of us were to have different waiters. Did that mean we would not be dining together?

Personal dining table, Dining with Alice
Not for the first course for sure.

My turbaned waiter of the night was Blue 10. She led me, my friend Ev and 2 other diners through a wooden door (with a heart-shaped viewing hole) into a garden by a running stream. We were welcomed by a man in white uniform playing a French Horn. Each of us were asked to sit at one end of different fully decorated tables and had the first course on our own.

On my table, there were 3 empty seats. The absence was profound and I wondered who would I be expecting? I looked around but I could not see any faces. Everyone was sitting alone at their individual tables which were scattered around the garden. Some were behind the bushes. For the diners I could see, I could only see their backs. I felt a little lost and I was not sure when/ how I was supposed to start eating.

Mock Turtle Soup- Dining with Alice
The White Knight came and opened the cover of the Mock Turtle Soup (photo above) for me. The soup was dark green in colour! With no spoon insight, I decided to drink it like a cup of tea.

Yuck! It was cold and tasted weird! Then, I noticed the ‘DRINK ME’ note and I emptied the whole bottle of Quinine and Bitter Orange Constitutional (see below) at once.

I guess in a normal restaurant, I would have spoken to the waiter about the cold and disgusting soup (which from reading the menu afterwards, was confirmed to be potatoes, olive oil, onion, watercress, spinach, vegetable stock, lemon juice, basil seeds and nettle). But this was not going to be a normal meal and I kind of imagined that all these were part of the plan to re-create the scene when Alice ended up drinking the magic potion, except that I was the one who was drinking it!

Drink me, Dining with Alice
There was a curious radish/ magic mushroom looking object at the bottom of the teacup (photo below). I gave it a go and discovered that it was actually a quail egg- What a wonderful surprise!

Mock Turtle Soup with perfumed quail's egg- Dining with Alice
The sound of a gong signalled the end of the first course. I was reunited with Ev and the other 2 diners after the starter. We followed Blue 10‘s lead, walked across the garden to find another table allocated for our second course. I started to worry a little when the others told me that they did not have any radish/ magic mushroom looking quail egg in their soup. ‘Hmm, Is something going to happen to me?’ I wondered. ‘Am I going to shrink?’

Dining with Alice, in beautiful garden of Elsing Hall
As we walked, we bumped into Alice After Wonderland . She said to us, ‘If they appear a little weird, it is because they are shy.’ ‘Who are they?’ we asked. ‘Everyone…’ After a short walk, Blue 10 asked me to take the seat by a tree which was also at the end of the table. A lady was already sitting there . I did not know her but she was to be my companion for the second course.

The Meated Scuttler (Crab, butter, spices and lemon juice)- Dining with Alice
I discovered another ‘DRINK ME’ tag on the jar which held some transparent liquid. (photo below). It was to complement the Meated Scuttler (crab, butter, spices and lemon juice, photo above). It was a little windy and I would have preferred a warm dish. But the shredded crab meat was in abundance. Looking across the field, three Alices were playing croquet. They were significantly different in size so I was wondering whether they were playing together or some Alices were actually a little further away from each other- interesting illusion of perspective!

Drink me- Dining with Alice
Table decoration- Dining with Alice
The King of Hearts came to check if we were ok. I told him that the food was great though it was a little windy and cold. He passed me the secret that the Queen of Hearts, despite seemingly enjoyed chopping people’s head, actually had a very warm heart. I could feel warmer if I got near her.

The Mad Hatter picked up his bike which he left by the tree near me. Before cycling off, he said goodbye to me and passed on some words of wisdom, ‘If you see a frog on the road, cross it.’ I surely will.

On the way to our main course, Dining with Alice
After the second gong, we made our way to the third course under the sunset. Blue 10 led me to table lit by an oil lamp. The table was set for 4 but no one else was there. There was an empty plate and jars with coloured liquid in front of me. (photo below)

Getting ready for main course, Dining with Alice
I asked her if that was my dinner. She was amused and told me that they were only table decorations and the food would be brought to me a little later. Seriously, I had been so absorbed into endless possibilities of the Wonderland that I would have eaten anything in front of me.

Riddle- Dining with Alice
Table decoration, Dining with Alice
There were a few riddles on my table (photos above and below) but I was distracted by the sight of Alices. They were wondering around and I was curious to know what they were up to.

Table decoration, Dining with Alice
Riddles- Dining wiith Alice
I noticed to my delight that 4 familiar faces were approaching my table. They were the friends I came with! 3 of them joined me for the main course and the other one joined Ev on another table. We were reunited!

We were served with the Pie of Hearts, which was a hearty and substantial hot beef pie. Yes, HOT! How lovely! With the great company of my friends and red wine. We could not help but sharing our experiences so far.

Vegetables Salad A La Soyer and the Pie of Hearts, Dining with Alice
The King of Hearts came again to see if we were happy with our meal, shortly followed by the Red Queen (photo below). I told her that Gerald had complained that the pie was not salty enough. She gave us the best response ever:

The Red Queen at main course, Dining with Alice
“Now, I want you to look deep within yourself and THINK… THINK just for ONE moment: why do I believe that someone as plainly insignificant as I should feel able to vocalise an opinion of such inconsequence in the presence of such majesty and wonders as these… I feel confident that once you have completed this introspection you will be more than satisfied with the generosity we have elected to bestow upon you…”

BRILLIANT! We could not stop laughing….

Table in the wood, Dining with Alice
As it got darker, the atmosphere got more magical and romantic. After another hit on the gong, we were asked to move on to another place for desserts. We secretly wished there was more time to eat as we still had food in our mouth! Though we were also keen to know what was going to be there next.

We walked along the lake towards a beautifully lit floating platform in the centre. That was where we were going to have our desserts! Two Alices sat on the bench nearby (second photo from top and photo below), watching us taking our seats by the dramatic backdrop of Elsing Hall.

Alices sitting across the lake in Wonderland, Dining with Alice
Performances at Dining with Alice
The Queen and King of Hearts, the Red Queen, the White Queen, the Duchess, the White Knight, the White Rabbit and Tweedle Dum & Dee all performed for us individually while we enjoyed our desserts. It was a grand and dramatic setting. However, as they were up on the stage and we were all sitting by the table, the distance reminded me that I was watching a show. I very much preferred the more intimate personal interactions I had with the individuals when they wandered around in the garden.

Our desserts were the Cake Array (Calloo Callay) (photo below) and the Jellateena (Voilet and Elderflower Jelly, second photo below). It said on the menu that the former was ‘a trio of Frank Dale Cakes’ but we only had 2 little cakes each. I thought ‘trio’ meant ‘three’? I was also served with mint and dandelion tea. Though I could not tell there was dandelion, I was very happy with a nice warm drink in the cold. Jelly is a signature dish of Bompas & Parr. Not only did this one have a peculiar shape of a woman’s breast, it was also refreshing and tasty!

The Cake Array (Calloo Callay)- A trio of Frank Dale Cakes, Dining with Alice
The Jellateena (Voilet and Elderflower Jelly) at Dining with Alice
In all, the food was not as dramatic as I had hoped. I guess it is hard not to compare it with the feast prepared by Heston Blumenthal which shared a similar theme. (Apparently, Bompas & Parr were his consultant at the time!) However, given the limitation of the on site cooking facilities (apparently no running water and no kitchen!) and the fact that they had to cater for 256 meals each night, Bompas & Parr did create a good and competent menu to complement the Story. It would be a mistake to just to focus on food anyway as there was so much more to this magical experience.

Each guest had his/her favourite moment. For me, the most impressive of all was definitely the seating configurations and re-configurations. It was a beautiful choreography in its own right. Each night, there were 256 guests. We started dining on our own (that meant 256 separate long tables and other settings!), then with one extra guest we did not know and ended up being reunited with the friends we came with! Each individual guest’s path intertwined with each other through moving from one course to another, through the act of dining and through traces we left behind on the table. Not only I interacted with iconic characters in the Story, I became part of the Wonderland myself.

I also enjoyed very much how many features of Elsing Hall, e.g. the maze, the small garden, the field, the lake and the external parts of the house, was successfully incorporated as parts of the overall journey throughout.

The magic was created through precise and thorough planning. Good job!

Dining with Alice
We bumped into artist Antony Gormley at the drinks after dinner. It was fantastic to catch up with him after our last project- One and Other , in which Gerald went up the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square as a green monster destroying London landmarks. Antony told us that his favourite part was seeing many Alices singing together.

I could not help but felt a strong sense of pride with Dining with Alice. What made me want to travel from all the way from London to Norfolk (2.5 hours by car!) initially was the fact I like Artichoke‘s old work, I like the stories of Alice and I like food.

I left appreciating this project even more. I discovered that apart from the core production team, most of the actors/actresses and staff were from Norwich and Norfolk. The food was prepared by students at City College, Norwich and local Frank Dale Foods . It was a public art project that has successfully drew the locals together to take part. Of course, I was also amazed them most of them were actually volunteers who took pride of presenting to us what talents Norfolk and Norwich have.

Dining with Alice
Dining with Alice was the latest project by Hilary Westlake, who created one of the earliest examples of immersive and site specific theatre art Alice in Wonderland in 1999. I was not lucky enough to attend the latter then but I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Hendrick's Gin at Dining with Alice