20-28 January 2017
Stagecraft: Book: Performance:
The Edinburgh Playhouse is Wonderland‘s first stop in its long, 30-venue UK tour. I doubt there were many, if any in the audience who weren’t familiar with Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll’s original children’s tale of magic and mayhem and his well-loved characters. With this production however, American writers, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy, had put a new spin on the old story by making Alice a 40-year old dispirited single mum, a few years’ out of a emotionally abusive marriage, needing to find herself again. Adapted by Robert Hudson to give it a British makeover, it still retains its sunny, American ‘believe in yourself’ empowerment message. The opening scene presents downtrodden Alice (powerfully played by Kerry Ellis in the Edinburgh show) and her dutiful daughter Ellie (the talented Naomi Morris) in front of a grim, grey tower block in London. Without any trace of a stage school ‘Mockney’ from either, their sensitive acting made their ‘reversed’ mother and daughter relationship immediately engaging and recognisable, as Ellie valiantly tries to nudge her mother into moving on with life. The chorus, leaned in and out together in their grey and blue office wear, their angular movements suitably expressing the emptiness of modern corporate life in the opening number, “Worst Day of my Life”. A ‘bad’ day for Alice indeed, as her ex gets remarried and she gets fired from her job for being late, not imagining, of course, that as doors close, much better ones are about to open. But she has to get out of her own way. We wait for the rabbit to appear.
“I don’t care about the real world!” is Alice’s weary battle cry, to the chagrin of her frustrated but ever patient daughter. The White Rabbit’s appearance, of course, is about to change everything. This one, played by Dave Willetts, is a kindly, affable rabbit, a curious ‘elder statesman’ with a spring in his step. As he takes her and her shy, lovestruck neighbour Jack (played by Stephen Webb) down in the psychedelic lift down to Wonderland, we are plunged immediately into the chaotic underworld that looks like a cross between the land of Oz and a mental hospital. The crowd of characters reflecting, I suppose, Alice’s full variety of repressed adult problems and abandoned dreams. Welcome to ‘Wonderland’..they sing, with a touch of early 80s British ska.
Jack’s persona as the shy, ignored neighbour doesn’t last too long, as he eagerly jumps first through the mirror of transformation. As his alter ego emerges, we’re amused by this new, confident, slick star, channeling a little Robbie Williams in his leather jacket and cocky attitude. However, he retains some vulnerability and kindness behind the new cockiness, which keeps us rooting for him as Alice’s ardent suitor. The boy band, with its nods to 1980’s blue eyed soul, Motown and every known boy band from New Kids on the Block to One Direction. ‘Show me one night’, Jack sings, as part of ‘One Knight’ and Alice loves it. Jack is a brand new character for us to meet of course, but the well-known and well-loved ones were reassuringly all there. The lime green Caterpillar was, simply, great fun. Played by Kayi Ushe; a day-glo Curtis Mayfield with huge lime-green legs, surrounded by bespectacled secretaries straight out of a 1950s cartoon, ‘Advice from a Caterpillar’ was a ridiculous trippy-kitsch soul number, and one of my favourites. The female quartet were eye-catching with their undulating movements as his legs, not just here but also the quintet that were the small chorus for the Queen of Hearts.
So far, so good. Powerful voices, catchy songs, defined characters and overall, great acting. But as the plot began to lose its rudder, we got a little restless. The songs were a great distraction, almost, from the weak plot and dialogue. The Mad Hatter was female (played by Natalie McQueen) and, like the other female leads, had powerful stage presence. Some attempts at political commentary and digs were being made at our accepted power hierarchies as her ‘madness’ morphs from mild eccentricity to full megalomania in the quest to take over Wonderland from the despotic Queen of Hearts, but this part of the plot loses its way and makes it hard to follow. They had many opportunities to make the most of comic moments; the annoying mirror for example, but the laughs were a little on the thin side. The relationship between Alice and Ellie continued to carry the show as it began to limp along. Ellie’s ‘stereotypical moody teen’ made the audience laugh the most. The mother and daughter duet, after Alice frees her from the Mad Hatter, is particularly touching. However, relying on their acting and the power of the big show tunes to carry the energy of the show only highlighted the weakness in the overall structure even further.
Many of the costumes, for something so iconic and rich as Alice in Wonderland characters were a little disappointing in parts. The Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts costumes, relying on tartan and nipped in waists, worked well, Perhaps the minimalism in parts was deliberate, but many of the animal costumes veered towards ‘low budget, school play, grab a pair of ears and go’ look, almost leaving us to imagine them into the roles of March Hare and Cheshire Cat. Again, for a dream world setting, they could have really gone to town with the set, but it was sparse and uninspiring on the whole. However, the lighting was fantastic, especially to create the psychedic, dimension roaming effect they wanted.
We do enjoy Alice’s dramatic psychological change, which is just as well, as it’s what the whole plot hinges on, after all. Just like in real life, it seems subtle after she comes out the transforming mirror, but then her real personality begins to shine as she is tested to do what she has to do, which is rescue her daughter and rescue herself in the process. We enjoy watching her use her fair but firm school teacher authority to set clear boundaries, command respect and get the right thing done. Middle-aged divorced mums will appreciate the message, of course, about finding yourself after an oppressive marriage, but I wondered about everyone else. Particularly what the few young children in the audience made of it, as there didn’t seem to be much particularly in it for them.
The talented cast certainly made the best of it with both their acting and singing. The Queen of Hearts (played by Wendi Peters) embodied the role perfectly, from the beginning of her explosive entrance, bustling on like a scarlet cross between Queen Victoria and Bubbles Rothermere. Her operatic voice delighted the audience with the length of her notes, and she filled the role with proper pantomime capriciousness. The musical score was great; a good mixture of jazz, swing, rock, pure pop; all the expected big belters from Frank Wildhorn, who wrote a no 1 power ballad for Whitney Houston herself, and we we were lucky to witness singers who can carry the full power of the songs. Kerry Ellis, indeed, carries the whole show right until the feel good ending, as she gains clarity about what has happened to her and who she really is. We’re happy for her, and glad to know that ‘hearts can unbreak’. With the Wonderland chorus contained in the shadows behind the veil, but just still visible, her voice packs a truly powerful punch at the end with her own Whitney style number, ‘Finding Wonderland’. Her acting and voice deserved the standing ovation that happened, probably, mainly for her. However, on leaving, it’s like having woken up from a pleasant but puzzling dream. Left with wispy fragments of plot that don’t create a cohesive whole, but the catchy tunes and feel-good factor stay with you.
Reviewed by Lisa Williams