FringeReview UK 2017
Now arrived at Theatre Royal Brighton. Starring Kerry Ellis as Alice, Stephen Webb as Jack, Dave Willetts as the White Rabbit and Wendi Peters as the Queen of Hearts. Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy craft a book and lyrics out of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books ‘for the Alice in us all’ wrapped with Frank Wildhorn’s score directed by Alex Parker, directed by Lotte Wakeham. Andrew Riley’s set starts with a backing screen of a high-rise giving onto Wonderland. Grace Smart’s costumes for the most part answer a state of dream. Lucie Pankhurst’s frenetic choreography enlivens.
It’s the acting and singing that makes this special, now arrived at Theatre Royal Brighton. Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy craft a book and lyrics out of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books ‘for the Alice in us all’ wrapped with Frank Wildhorn’s score directed by Alex Parker, directed by Lotte Wakeham.
The music’s overwhelming in the first half, Andrew Riley’s set starts with a backing screen of a high-rise giving onto Wonderland, with its recessional rabbit tunnel lit up with psychedelic bands of colour picked up in the decor below: a maze, a Looking Glass and at one point a raked tea party table.
Grace Smart’s psychedelic acid and purple/green splashed with red costumes for the most part answer a state of dream, with the Rabbit’s best of all. we do get two characters suddenly transformed into Grease, which half-works. Lucie Pankhurst’s frenetic choreography enlivens this so much that you wonder and fear for the characters at the same time.
Kerry Ellis’ outstanding Alice finds herself down a hole, but not the right one. She’s a single mum with Ellie (Naomi Morris) long abandoned by controlling husband Sebastian who made her give up dreams of writing, even teaching. Naturally shrinking into submission means he leaves her, so Alice has tried to keep submerged in hope he’ll return; but he’s getting married. So when she’s fired from her dead-end as a travel agent for places she can never aspire to because her car was stolen, she’s had enough. Not even Stephen Webb’s neighbour Jack, a recycling manager who’s silently adored her for three years can cheer her and an imminently rebellious but more adult Ellie. When they all spot Dave Willetts’ White Rabbit telling them it’s time to change their lives and Ellie runs off with him, well it’s time to travel off the map without booking.
Willetts mixing his tosers is one of the highlights, an anchoring performance as reality drags from above somewhere and the tight Brighton stage pulsates with hyper-active characters. We’re treated to a gallimaufry of gyrations from Kayi Ushi’s Caterpillar, one of the stand-out performances in ‘Advice From aCaterpillar’, likened to Sammy Davis Jnr in Sweet Charity. all Caterpillar has to lose as his feet, which bewilders him when his train of greeny people drop off. But that’s later. His vocal clarity comic presence and singing is a bonus especially where the first half threatens incoherence with rapid shifts as bits of Carroll’s books are offered.
Blink and you’d miss Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee (Benjamin McMillan, Benjamin Rees) but you won’t miss the gyrating Cheshire Cat of Dominic Owen. Instead of something slinky (a variant of ‘Trust in Me’ perhaps) he’s escaped: not from Cheshire but Amadeus, an understudy on acid. It’s not Owen’s fault though his diction like others isn’t clear, and the Cheshire Cat always is. Even costume for once lets him down. In an over-frenetic production a potential point of stillness is missed. Return to Cheshire and think again.
It’s clear that to realise your dreams you must leap through the Looking Glass whose voice John Finnemore is disconcertingly prone to reflect your fears, naturally. Ellie loses her adult-worry mode, Jack transforms into the pop singer he dreams of, and Alice, well you’ll have to make up your own mind as to how transformed she is. Ellis makes this literally immaterial.
Two plot points new to Alice’s world are that if you’re still in the real world, you can’t have your head chopped off; but once transformed you’re vulnerable. Once you’ve had your head lopped off once there’s no going back. Quite a lot of lawyers have followed this route, both rabbit and Dormouse for instance. Wendi Peters’ Queen arrives like the Queen of Sheba for set pieces and then vanishes again. She’s magnificent when there, a fantastical but pure can-belto in ‘Hail the Queen’ and ‘Off With Their Heads’, and necessary for the climax; though her plot presence is bitty.
The second plot point is the transforming of the mad Hatter Natalie McQueen who looks and sounds wonderful with panache and a sexy crush on Ben Kerr’s March Hare, particularly his ears; but her diction as with others cast members is indistinct. She has one of the best songs though ‘I Shall Prevail’ the three words one can actually make out. Trouble is, she’s gone through the Looking Glass – not a normal Looking Glass character thing to do, and come out horribly tyrannical,. Tea Time is abolished, she’ll have wonderland turn hatting factory. And that’s before we’ve dealt with the Queen of Hearts. now imperilled, there are two queens to fight off, and faint-hearted Wonderlanders don’t dare to get behind our little band. But there’s always a trial, always the law, and some lawyers remember who they are… So see the rest for yourselves.
Ellis is outstandingly fine in her numbers as in ‘Worst Day’ and ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ the touching ‘Once More I Can See’ and with Webb in ‘Love Begins’. There’s a lovely soprano duet for her and McQueen’s Hatter in ‘This Is Who I Am’ Webb’s is another outstanding performance, his ‘One Knight’ the highlight of the over-frenetic first half. Willetts, so sterling everywhere enjoys his I Am My Own Invention’ and one wonders if with him, Ellis, Webb, Ushe and Peters a tighter, more intelligently wrought production might have been mounted. The ingredients are there: it’s a magical idea, and just needs a quieter rationale and – to make it a great show – a few more memorable numbers.
But if you care for musicals, see it for these outstanding clutch of performers and a dream of something perennial.