Review: The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party - ZooNation - Roundhouse

Performance: 30 December 2016 - 22 January 2017
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 16 January 2017

Performance reviewed: 10 January 2017

It is second sitting for the tea party but the Mad Hatter and his crew have moved Wonderland from the Linbury Studio Theatre (underground at the Royal Opera House), where it premiered, in December 2014, to the Roundhouse at Chalk Farm. And, unsurprisingly, this shift in venue has occasioned significant change from Kate Prince and her creative team at ZooNation.

At around two hours, it’s a longer show, with five new songs and much more dance content, enabling previously-peripheral characters to be fleshed out in greater detail. But, crucially, the move to the cavernous space of the Roundhouse has led to absolutely no compromise in the strength of intimacy between the performers and their audience, which has retained its superglued bond in this new space.

Prince’s concept is ingenious. Much-loved characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are given new perspectives as residents of the Institution for Extremely Normal Behaviour; initially encountered in an introductory session with their new doctor, Ernest, who has arrived at the Institution, fresh-faced and earnest, armed with his PhD in “normalization” but completely unprepared for the mayhem to come. Adding an interesting twist to the mix is the narrator, Bertie, whom, it transpires, is Ernest’s predecessor, now recovering from a breakdown! Act one cleverly introduces each of the inmates through a succession of dances in which their individual solos are picked out as a main focus. The institutional drabness of the opening act contrasts effectively with the magical Wonderland setting for the tea party; Ernest’s own rapid dissembling having led to a mass escape!

There’s a lot to take in: exciting choreography on the main stage and great music from the platform above with Josh Cohen’s humour-laden, poetic narration being delivered variously from both vantages. Characterisations were richly observed across the board. The triple-T axis of Turbo, Tommy and Teneisha, each reprising their roles from 2014/15, provided a rich core of charismatic dance aligned to a mature sense of theatre: Turbo (aka Issac Baptiste) brought a glowing sense of benevolent eccentricity to the key role of The Mad Hatter, one of the characters to gain from the rewrite; Tommy Franzén was the archetypal innocent abroad, as Dr Ernest; and Teneisha Bonner is ravishingly feisty as The Queen of Hearts. A cute little love interest is subliminally interjected for the Queen and the Hatter.

There is a great mix of experience and youth in a cast that has a 20-year age span. Playing Tweedle-Dum, Rowen Hawkins has been with ZooNation since the beginning, in 2002, and he still has all the bboy moves (including nifty hand hops) even when wearing the kind of padding that I carry around for free; by contrast, playing Tweedle-Dee is Manny Tsakanika’s debut for ZooNation and he slides in opposite Hawkins, as the other naughty twin, with an impressive maturity. Prince has established a great conveyor belt of talent, commencing with the ZooNation Academy and progressing through her Youth Company; a route that Jaih Betote has taken into the professional ranks; starting at the Academy, aged 13, and now succeeding in the iconic, excitable role of The White Rabbit.

Another character to have been expanded is that of The March Hare, portrayed ebulliently by Bradley Charles. Andry Oporia hit some fast-paced krumping moves into transient poses that represented the mischievous Cheshire Cat. And, last but by no means least, Kayla Lomas-Kirton played Alice, not traditionally as the erstwhile, unintentional adventurer at the centre of Lewis Carroll’s tales, but as a sweet-natured and indecisive Institutional resident.

That isn’t quite the end of the casting, because Derek Dormouse plays his namesake, the Dormouse, with a rare attention to detail although one felt that his movement quality was subject to the manipulation of others; and his characterisation was derivative (Roland the Rat springs to mind). Derek’s particular moment comes in the song “I keep falling asleep”; a standout, laugh-out-loud highlight! The music by DJ Walde and Cohen (lyrics by the two of them and Prince herself) is a major contribution to the ubiquitous, upbeat, joyful feel and a soundtrack worth having in its own right. Similarly, the design contribution of Ben Stones, through set and costumes, is an outstanding ingredient to further enhance the feel-good factor.

In keeping with a show that has only yet seen performances around the Christmas period, a pantomime link is established by opening up the tea party to some invited guests from the audience. They are quickly costumed and integrated within the piece; a factor doubly enhanced on this evening by including a special and uncredited professional amongst the “extras”. When the guests on this show are invited to dance, one of them really knew how!

This is a great show; even better than the first time around. It was originally commissioned by The Royal Ballet to complement performances of Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and it is again presented by The Royal Ballet in this new venue. In these welcome days of increasing diversity, one starts to wonder why the only Royal dance companies are in ballet. It strikes me that – in so many ways – Kate Prince is to hip hop dance theatre as Ninette de Valois was to British ballet. ZooNation turns 15, this year. The fifteenth year of Sadler’s Wells Ballet was, in many respects, its coming of age, re-opening The Royal Opera House, after six years’ of war, in 1946; and a decade later it earned the Royal tag. If Hip Hop is ever to be similarly recognised, then it must surely start with ZooNation.

On at the Roundhouse till 22 January 2017

Chalk Farm Road
Telephone: 0300 6789 222

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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