YOU probably won‘t bump into the Red Queen – but that apart, just about everything will be possible when the Museum Gardens turn into Wonderland for this year’s Illuminating York. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

YOU might think you know Museum Gardens. Think again. For four nights only, from Wednesday, October 31, to Saturday, November 3, the familiar botanical gardens will be transformed into a surreal, psychedelic landscape.

It will be part Where The Wild Things Are, part Alice in Wonderland – and part a landscape of clashing, shifting colours populated by weird and wonderful creatures that have come straight from the strange brain of comedian Vic Reeves.

Reeves is known for his sense of the absurd: and he has indulged that to the full in the designs he has come up with for Wonderland, the main event at this year’s Illuminating York Festival. Bright red elephant, anyone? – one standing on tiptoe while wearing a fez and holding what’s either a boulder or a giant potato?

Or how about a purple man having a fight with a lurid green elephant seal, while a top hat sits neatly on the floor nearby?

“I kinda like that idea of fighting a massive animal which is just 100 per cent blubber and immovable; who’s going to win?” Reeves said.

The great thing about this year’s festival, however, is that it will take these and other images and then not just project them onto the walls of one of York’s great old buildings – but actually use them to create an entire world.

Walk through the gates of the Museum Gardens on any one of the evenings that the festival runs, and you will be entering a different world. “You will be entering Wonderland,” said Dan Lister, of design and engineering firm Arup, which has been heavily involved with designing the lighting for this year’s event.

It won’t be quite the Wonderland of Lewis Carroll’s Alice. There will be a tea party, where you’ll be invited to sit at tables and ‘eat me’ or ‘drink me’. But you probably won’t meet the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, or even Alice herself.

This will be Wonderland as seen through the mind of Reeves. “The starting point is Lewis Carroll: but we wanted this to be Vic’s Wonderland,” says architect Simon Baker of Chetwoods, who helped design the overall look and feel of the event.

There will be three main audio-visual displays – one on the front of the Yorkshire Museum; one using the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey; and one using the inner wall of the city’s bar walls behind the bowling green.

The first will involve a ten-minute audio-visual loop of Reeves’ Wonderland creatures beamed on to the front of the museum, and set to a soundtrack of Reeve’s own choosing.

The second will focus on the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. The effect will be to create the appearance of a giant disco dance taking place among the ruins themselves. In fact, there will only be one person dancing at a time, in a small tent round the corner, where their image will be filmed and set to music, then projected on to the ruins. The images will build up, however, to create a full-on party.

The third audio-visual display, beamed on to the city walls behind the bowling green, will feature Reeves again, this time trapped in a surreal landscape from which he’s desperately trying to escape, by swallowing blue or red pills to shrink or grow in size.

What marks this year’s event out from previous years, however, is that these three audio-visual displays won’t exist in isolation. The entire ten acres of the Museum Gardens will be lit up to create a landscape utterly different from that we’re used to.

Trees and plants will be highlighted in different, changing colours; a path through the bushes down by the river will be transformed by light into a wild creature wood; there will be winged bikes to ride; and you’ll be able to look through the telescope in the York observatory at a ‘new’ constellation.

The aim is to completely change the familiar world of Museum Gardens into another landscape altogether, says Chris Walker of Bright White Ltd, which in partnership with Bar Lane Studios has translated Reeves’s ideas into light and sound. “It will be a celebration of the role of the absurd: a chance to forget about day-to-day things like mortgages and bill payments and go back to your childhood.”

Reeves admits to being excited. “I think it should appeal to anyone who’s got an open mind,” he said. “I like seeing things from other angles and imagining it, using your imagination to its fullest…lights and bright colours and a wonderland shouldn’t be anything but fantastic.”

• Tickets for Wonderland are £5 adult, £1 under 16s, under 5s free. Children under 16 must be accompanied by a paying adult.

Tickets can be bought for one of four time slots on each night: 6.30pm-7.30pm; 7.30pm-8.30pm; 8.30pm-9.30pm; and 9.30pm-10.30pm (last entry 10pm). You must enter the gardens within the hourly slot for which you have bought a ticket, though once inside you can stay until the event finishes for the night.

Organisers strongly recommend that those wanting to visit Wonderland book tickets in advance, since the numbers who can visit are limited.

Tickets are available from the Theatre Royal; by telephone from 01904 623568; or online from

Also lighting up...

As usual, there will be a host of supporting events at this year’s Illuminating York Festival. Here are a few highlights:

• Illuminating York Minster, celebrating the opening of The Orb experience. Kaleidoscopes of shadow and light, candles and colour create a ‘window on heaven’. Tickets £5 adults, £2.50 children (with £1 discount if you have a Vic Reeves Wonderland ticket). 0844 939 0015/

• A Ghostly Glow, Treasurer’s House. Ghostly goings on in grand period rooms. £4 adult, £2 children, free for National Trust members and free for YorkCard holders on October 31 and November 1 only. 01904 624247/

• A Medieval Illumination, Barley Hall. FREE.

• Fairfax House After Dark. Candlelit performance by the mansion’s ‘original Georgian inhabitants’. Adults £14, children £7. Ticket includes a glass of wine upon arrival. 01904 655543/

• Details of other Illuminating York supporting events can be found at


Decision to charge for Illuminating York

It hasn’t escaped the attention of many people that this is the first time there will be a charge to see the main event of Illuminating York. Why is that?

It was a decision taken by the Illuminating York Steering Group, says Gill Cooper, head of arts, leisure and heritage at City of York Council .

“It was decided that if we were thinking of doing something on the size and scale of this, it wasn’t something that we could expect the public purse to pay for.” It shouldn’t be paid for by council taxpayers, in other words: but by those who actually want to come and see the event.

Nevertheless, prices were held at a level that it was felt families would be able to afford, stresses Ms Cooper: £5 for over 16s; £1 for 16 and unders; under 5s free. “That means a family of four can come for not much more than £10. We recognise that times are hard for people.”

Museum Gardens will be open as normal during the day, but the gates will close at 6pm, then reopen to those with tickets from 6.30pm.