“Wonderland” at The Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh is one of those theatrical events that I am still, as I write this review, undecided about. The show, as you would guess from the title takes us into an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, but this is a “Wonderland” with some interesting updates and twists. Also here, we venture heavily into Carroll’s sequel to “Wonderland” (and return to there) - “Through The Looking Glass”. Over the years since their original publication, the two books have merged in many stories and readers’ minds into one book, but they are quite separate…in fact it was the original “Wonderland” artist Sir John Tenniel who made two new characters Haigha (March Hare) and Hatta (The Hatter) look like the first book’s characters and not Lewis Carroll.
There have been so many re-workings of these two classic stories that it is refreshing to have a new approach to the tales, and Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy (book) have come at these stories with some genuinely innovative ideas and a fresh approach to some major characters. In this story Alice (Kerry Ellis) is 40 years old, living in a modern tower block with her teenage daughter Ellie (Naomi Morris). Add into this the facts that Alice has had all her old identity, dreams and a lot of her self worth eroded away by her dominating ex-husband and is at the moment having “the worst day of her life”, the opening scenes set us up both musically and visually for a contemporary take on an old story. Throw into the equation the man from downstairs in the block Jack (Stephen Webb) who is too shy to reveal his feelings about Alice to her, and our trio of characters to venture into “Wonderland” are in place.
As always, entrance to “Wonderland” is via following the White Rabbit (Dave Willetts), but this entrance is interestingly via a tower block lift and not a rabbit hole. Unfortunately, in the first act, some of that spark of originality seems to get lost in the lift on the way down to “Wonderland”. There are still some interesting and original concepts in this “Wonderland” and reasons why everyone is here, but I think it best to let anyone going to this show discover them directly rather than spoil some surprises in this review. The Queen of Hearts (Wendi Peters) is of course here too, but this “Wonderland” really belongs to Mad Hatter (Natalie McQueen), and making this central character female really works well. The only real problem here is that Natalie’s Mad Hatter is one of the strongest and most well defined of all and she gets some of the best scenes and songs. Natalie is great in this role that is a sort of cross with Vivienne Westwood design wise and the comic character “Harlequin” in temperament, but this does allow this Mad Hatter to steal much of the show away from The Queen of Hearts and even Alice herself.
This is not just a simple fantasy tale, and that is what really saves the show. This “Wonderland” is an adventure into someone finding out who they really are, discovering their own identity and following their own dreams. This voyage of self-discovery is achieved by stepping into the “looking glass”. Portraying the newly discovered (or maybe just lost) inner selves of our three adventurers, Alice, Ellie and Jack is difficult to portray on stage as the change is within and not on the outside, and that change is very much a central message of this show, but overall it does work. I have to admit though that I preferred the pre-change character of daughter Ellie far more as the dynamics of the relationship between her and her mother Alice were far more interesting.
Kerry Ellis is a very good modern day Alice here and could easily have played this part as a straight non musical role, but this of course is a musical and Kerry does a great job with some very good songs over a range of styles and emotions. Having an adult “Alice” does mean though that we lose that ever questioning of the world around her of the original novel. Good as Naomi Morris is as Ellie, her more contemporary character also fails to take on that “child in a land she does not understand” role.
Wendi Peters as Queen of Hearts is obviously having some great fun with this character and is in classic song and dance routine for much of the role. The problem is though that this is a rather one dimensional character that gives a very good actress and performer like Wendi little room to really explore the character in.
This is very much a “girls show” and Alice makes a very “Girl power” speech here, so it is little wonder that the main male roles of White Rabbit (Dave Willetts) and Jack (Stephen Webb) are just not as strong or as interesting as some of the female ones.
Some of our main supporting characters though like the Caterpillar and the “Cheshire Cat seem far less important than they should be. Our poor Cheshire Cat has lost his “magic” and classic smile in this story.
Music wise, a bit of an odd mixture for me tonight. Frank Wildhorn (Music) and Jack Murphy (Lyrics) have given us some great show songs such as “I Will Prevail” and “This is Who I Am”, but a few do seem stuck in 1980s/90s “manufactured pop format”. Fortunately the stronger songs far outweigh the weaker ones here and it is a welcome change to hear new music and lyrics specially written for a show rather than a show that is just using or re-working existing material. We need new work or musical theatre will leave little for the next generation of performers and audiences.
This being a trip into “Wonderland” the set and costume designers can pretty much go anywhere they want, and there are some good costume designs here for our central characters. The set though somehow just never seems to fully explore the full opportunities of a “Wonderland”. At times, it reminds me of old 1960s television Science Fiction shows. The hoops of light and tunnels just take me back to the old “Time Tunnel” show, and any fan of the original 1960s Star Trek show will find some familiarity with the giant talking looking glass structure and the talking monolith structure that is the “Guardian of Forever” from the classic “City On The Edge Of Forever” episode.
A bit of an up and down show for me as I said at the beginning. Some great and original story innovation, some great songs, but at times we drifted far too close to a pantomime feel and maybe just catching this show at the edge of pantomime season made that element a bit more obvious.
This “Wonderland”, like the characters in the story, is very much about how you view things, and I suspect that a younger female audience in particular will just love this show. This is very much a mums and daughters show with its strong message of finding your own self and a message for girls and women to be strong and confident in themselves. Given that voyage of discovery though, Alice’s immediate lifestyle choice at the end may be viewed by some as a bit odd.
Review by Tom King