Wonderland continues at the Edinburgh Playhouse until 28 January, before embarking on a UK tour until 19 August.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
In returning Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the UK, this first touring production of 2011 American musical Wonderland has a lot going for it in terms of energy and colour. But—yes, there’s a ‘but’—it’s arguably despite rather than because of Jack Murphy (lyrics and book), Gregory Boyd (book), Frank Wildhorn (music) and Robert Hudson (the latter has given this work a bit of a British makeover).
Wonderland’s Alice is 40, divorced, and newly unemployed; she’s oblivious to the attentions of her forlorn neighbour Jack, and instead waits for her manipulative ex-husband to come back and save her. After what feels like the worst day of her life– summarised in a succinct musical number that undoubtedly grabs the audience’s attention – Alice finds herself following her daughter Ellie into Wonderland with Jack (a sufficiently cheesy Stephen Webb) and a judiciously mannered White Rabbit (the soft-spoken Dave Willetts) via a broken lift.
Yet that potentially powerful plot line is immediately squandered by Alice being reunited with Ellie, with the show’s dramatic foundations subsequently reliant on a succession of self-described fortune cookie homilies about finding yourself, combined with an agitprop narrative against the tyranny of the Queen of Hearts. Not that the show even holds tightly onto these – or the lingering threat that, if the Queen cuts off their heads, the three visitors will be stuck in Wonderland forever.
Instead, there’s a big swerve to the Mad Hatter – given a gender switch for no obvious reason – stepping through the Looking-Glass and inadvertently becoming an industrial tyrant equal to the Queen of Hearts. “That’s how Power works,” is her favourite catchphrase now that teatime is over. But only in Wonderland, as this show clearly avoids having any relevance to the world outside the theatre’s doors.
All of which suggests that Wonderland is a poor show. Far from it; a clear advantage of ageing Alice is that you can cast a highly experienced performer in the role. Kerry Ellis hits all the right notes, both vocally and dramatically, though she has no time to rest on her laurels when sharing the stage with either Natalie McQueen’s strutting Blackadder-esque Mad Hatter or a memorable Wendi Peters as the delightfully grotesque Queen of Hearts.
This is without doubt a bold, colourful production, with an energetic, sharply-focused cast including several stand-out performances among its tight-knit ensemble. (Keep an eye out for Toyan Thomas-Browne, whose balletic grace and focus of movement is a joy; Ben Kerr, meantime, brings a guileless physicality to the March Hare.)
Yet, despite being such a finely-tuned machine, this show still has a sense of being slightly less than the sum of its parts, and trying just too hard on occasions into the bargain. After all, when a show labours the importance of knowing who you are with at least three songs – ‘I Am My Own Invention’, ‘This is Who I Am’, and ‘Finding Wonderland’ for example – it’s at best unnecessary overkill and at worst a desperate attempt to find something which will knock La Cage aux Folles’ ‘I Am What I Am’ off the top of the anthem charts. Which should hardly be the point of the exercise.
Paul F Cockburn