Review: Royal Ballet - Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland - Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep until 13 April 2013
Reviewed by Josephine Leask - Tuesday 19 March 2013

Royal Ballet's Sarah Lamb in 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. Photo: Johan Persson, courtesy, ROH

Performance reviewed: 15 March 2013

Christopher Wheeldon’s production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a ballet which looks slick, sparkly and in touch with our contemporary world. Rather than doing anything too whacky or psychologically sinister with his interpretation of the narrative or characters from Lewis Carroll’s book, Wheeldon plays safe and goes for the fantastical and glamorous instead. What makes it tick is a mixture of imaginative visual effects and projections, designs by Bob Crowley, Joby Talbot’s enthralling music score and the impressive characterization of the dancing. There’s even some puppetry just to complete the Total theatre experience.

The performers inhabit their characters with conviction and verve. Captivating acting blends with effortlessly executed choreography as they eagerly transport us to the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the crazy Duchess’s kitchen or the Queen of Heart’s rose garden. Edward Watson’s stressed White Rabbit comes to live through neurotic gestures such as scratching his leg with a foot, Gary Avis’s Duchess troubles and amuses with his manic head shaking; Zenaida Yanowsky grimaces repeatedly as the spiteful, malicious Queen of Hearts. Eric Underwood, although cast as an exotic oriental caterpillar, oozes with eastern promise as he dances with his harem, whom also double up as segments of his long, squirmy caterpillar’s body. Sarah Lamb who takes over from Lauren Cuthbertson [still recovering from injury] as Alice, is a vivacious, adventurous young woman, whose one mission is to find her lover, the gardener’s boy, Tom (Federico Bonelli). She finds him again in Wonderland, but this time metamorphosed into the accused Knave of Hearts.

Wheeldon’s three act ballet is a celebration of cross-references to theatre, movie and celebrity figures. For example Watson in his white costume is like an androgynous guardian angel (reminiscent of Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella ) to Alice, and although he’s nervous and impatient, he’s also detached and dignified. Alexander Campbell as the Mad Hatter resembles a tap dancing version of Johnny Depp’s same character in Tim Burton’s film of Alice in Wonderland; a show-biz dandy who has taken too many drugs. While Gary Avis’s Duchess is a pantomime dame on speed.

Yanowsky portrays her Queen of Hearts as a Lady Gaga type, splendid with gender-bending appeal and uncompromising costume. She’s encased in a gigantic metallic red dress, from which she finally climbs out of in the third act. One of the most intriguing sections is in Act III, during the croquet match in which Queen competes against the Duchess. Yanowsky acts like a man in drag as convincingly as Gary Avis. Her daring movements in which she somersaults or hurls herself at her partner, deliciously off-balance and out of control, accentuates her versatility as a dancer as well as an actress playing a demonic psychopath.

One of my favourite characters is that of the elusive and beguilingly ambiguous Cheshire Cat. Here exhibited as a huge, disembodied puppet, sometimes the feline appears in its entirety; other times we see only a floating head or a tail.

Joe Driscoll’s projections are arrestingly mesmerizing as in the vivid spiral intended to illustrate the trajectory of Alice’s fall down the hole into wonderland. Or the multiple doors which become bigger or smaller depending on whether Alice is shrinking or growing. An interactive screen which when touched ripples like water enhances the effect of Alice swimming in her tears.

Designs for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Act II are Dali-esque: enormous surreal spoons and a chair tower over outsized cakes and scones; a Victorian stage complete with footlights replaces the table. Gaudy, psychedelic colours and the bizarre behaviour of the guests suggest some hedonistic drug infused party. It’s a hard scene to follow and renders the successive garden scene in which Alice and the Knave dance a romantic duet amongst the flowers, insipid and sickly sweet.

Finally, in terms of the grotesque spectacular, there’s the Duchess’s kitchen, a manic butcher’s shop in which the Cook and Duchess chaotically make sausages in giant mincers, while nursing a screaming baby. Disembowelled pig parts litter the room and blood-stained costumes recall scenarios from Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

Binding all these remarkable ingredients together is Joby Talbots quirky yet melodic music. Enthrallingly atmospheric, it propels the danced action and makes sense of the visuals. The gentle but powerful Xylophone’s repeated motif of a ticking clock sticks with me all night.

All performances at the Royal Opera House are sold out
www.roh.org.uk – but the performance in Thursday 28th March (with the same cast as reviewed here) will be relayed live to cinemas around the UK – and the world. More location details here

Photos: Johan Persson, courtesy, ROH


Josephine Leask is a lecturer in Cultural Studies on the BA (Hons) degree course at the London Studio Centre and London correspondent for The Dance Insider

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