New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 6th February, 2017
This musical already has a chequered history and now its latest version is on the road, hoping to garner the love of fans of shows like Wicked, perhaps, giving adults fantasy-based plots with grown-up versions of characters we all remember from childhood. Unlike Wicked, which has strong source material in the books by Gregory Maguire, this Alice is purely the invention of writers Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy. Their spin on Lewis Carroll is to give us a contemporary setting. Alice is in her 40s, a divorcee and former teacher, living in a tower block – all well and good until you realise how emotionally immature she is, yearning for a knight to rescue her, desperate to escape into fantasy.
The mighty Kelly Ellis plays Alice, throwing herself into the nonsense of Wonderland as soon as she gets there. Ellis is an impeccable performer but I can’t take to Alice, no matter how well sung and spiritedly acted she is. Alice has a daughter, a starchy, matronly teen called Ellie (Naomi Morris) who reminds me of Saffy from Ab Fab – until she goes through the looking glass and then turns into a sassy, sulky child. Also along for the ride is their neighbour from the tower block, Jack (Stephen Webb) a shy, tongue-tied admirer of Alice who goes through the looking glass and comes out as George Michael, complete with cheesy boy band – the highlight of the first act for me.
The score by Frank Wildhorn is serviceable and the lyrics by Jack Murphy are often witty – when you can hear them. What brings this show crashing down is the book. There are half-baked attempts at being profound, asking us to reflect (ha) on the ‘real’ us we see in the mirror. There are half-arsed attempts at delivering a political message: the Mad Hatter (Natalie McQueen) comes through the looking glass as a power-crazed industrialist, distracted from her quest to overthrow the tyrannical queen. “That’s how power works” is a constant refrain. Spoiler: the residents of Wonderland decide they’d rather have a monarchy, with its constant threat of irrational capital punishment.
Wendi Peters is a revelation as the Queen of Hearts, belting out show tunes. She makes an impression in the first act but then is absent for so long, I forget she’s in it. Give this woman a tour of Gypsy, for pity’s sake. I also like Ben Kerr’s March Hare and look forward to seeing him in something else.
Musical theatre veteran Dave Willetts is the White Rabbit – at least the writers have the sense to give him chance to demonstrate his mellifluous tones. He’s still in great voice but navel-gazing songs about finding yourself and being your own invention always make me want to vomit, whatever the context. Self-identity is also a theme here, from the Caterpillar’s repeated asking of ‘Who are you?’ (Kayi Ushe is good fun in this role) to Alice’s desire to regress into childhood, rather than face up to grown-up responsibilities and give up on the husband who crushed her emotionally. Frankly, I couldn’t give a monkey’s.
The entire company works hard to sell us this curate’s egg. Lucie Pankhurst’s quirky choreography, Grace Smart’s clever costumes, and Andrew Riley’s striking set, all support the likeable performers in the flogging of this dead horse of a story. Carroll’s Alice is a child trying to make sense of the nonsensical adult world. This Alice embraces the nonsense as a refuge from reality, but too many of the characters (like Tweedles Dum and Dee) are marginalised as chorus members to have any impact on her journey.
A bright spectacle well-performed but ultimately, I find it’s unsatisfying to take what passes through a rabbit’s hole and roll it in glitter.