Review: Zoonation - The Mad Hatter's Tea Party - Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Performance: 9 December 2014 - 3 January 2015
Reviewed by Rachel Nouchi - Thursday 11 December 2014

'The Mad Hatter's Tea Party'. Photo: Alice Pennefather

Performance reviewed: 9 December

After the recent successes of Groove on Down the Road at Southbank Centre and Some Like it Hip Hop at the Peacock, it’s another show and another venue for Kate Prince’s Zoonation. In the first full length hip hop show to blast its way inside the hallowed complex of the Royal Opera House, Prince has created a melodramatic, barmy, psychedelic bedlam in the Linbury Studio Theatre, which like the Royal Ballet’s show in the main house, is inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. True to form, Prince presents a narrative which (mostly) elevates hip hop beyond the realms of competitive battles and proving that this disciplined movement practice can embody genuine emotion in its characters. In this case, her vehicle is a gang of highly disturbed individuals who congregate in Carroll’s Mad Hatter’s tea party.

Rather than falling down a rabbit hole, Alice (Lizzie Gough) and familiar friends are locked up in a high security unit- forced to attend ‘circle time’ much to the bad luck of newly qualified Ernest, (Tommy Franzen) the young psychiatrist, who is eventually plunged into madness himself after being subjected to mental and physical abuse at the hands of his patients.

And that’s all before the interval. Sounds like a sack load of festive cheer? Funnily enough, despite the gothic gloom, it’s surprisingly entertaining, from its spotlight solos and ensembles to despotically comic characters dressed up like kids gone mad in a candy store (or in this case, the clearly well stocked ROH costume and props department). Puppets pop out of teacups and grown men throw around their rattles – the intention is always to have fun. Having said that, when Ernest finally falls apart and expresses his angst in a tortuous dance of floor grinding, arms and legs flaying, one can’t help wishing for boogying happy hip hop. While poor Ernest has apparently become a lost case, the intimation is that he can only fully embrace his inner hip hop soul once he has been driven mad along with the rest of his motley crew.

And what a line-up of reprobates all squawking for tea: from Teneisha Bonner’s psychotic Queen of Hearts, whose fire drill like tones are enough to make the calmest of observers a little jumpy, to the crazily OCD White Rabbit (Corey Culverwell). This Queen of Hearts is most terrifying in her murderous demeanor with her “off with her head” mantra, bedecked from head to toe in a blood-red Dracula style dress and cloak that slips on and off in preparation for her ferocious routines, like a boxer entering the ring. Bonner burns up the dance floor with her body rippling beauty – at once alluring with a burlesque edge and downright nail-biting as she gnashes her teeth if anyone gets too close.

Things really heat up after the interval where Wonderland becomes a trimmed hedged fairground with a neon sign towering over a giant tea table that doubles up as a platform to showcase some of the best moves of the evening now that the narrative straightjacket of the first half has been abandoned and the cast really show what they can do. Party time has finally arrived and the set screams of tea, cake and giant teapots – a tribute to the psychedelic imagination of costume designer, Ben Stones. It takes a deal of discipline to sit still in your seat when the pumped up funky soundtrack from DJ’s Josh Cohen and DJ Walde and the sultry, jazzy live accompaniment of Elliotte Williams-N’Dure fill the stage.

Whilst tea is taken alongside participants plucked from the stalls, (including on press night resident ROH choreographer Wayne McGregor) the audience are encouraged to stay close to the action as storybook characters brush past, making eye contact in both a devilishly fun but brutish way.

I came face to face with the daring Tweedle-Dee (Ross Sands) and Tweedle-Dum (Rowen Hawkins) dressed in fat suits, screaming high octane nothings while squabbling over their rattle and generally throwing their toys out of the pram in a hilarious, yet disturbingly demonic sketch – a theme running through the production, where the cast are either fighting or trying to kill themselves or someone else.

Once the tea paraphernalia is cleared, it’s time to watch the characters perform their party-pieces on the table and characters like Ernest, finally free of the white coat, can strut his stuff in a large helping of hip-hop showstoppers. Franzen’s performance is virtuosic, if not somewhat heart stopping for fear he may fly off the table in one of his fearsome breaking, popping, hand-spinning feats, swiftly followed by the brilliant Mad Hatter Issac “Turbo” Baptiste and his effortless footwork.

You’ve been warned. This is no pastoral take on Alice in Wonderland. These characters are in competition for first prize in a ghoulishly scary competition and I know for a fact that when the Cheshire Cat (Duwane Taylor) arrives in his shades, straitjacket and wheelchair that my little one will be cowering under my arm when we see the show together on Christmas Eve. While The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party doesn’t offer the youthful fizz of previous Zoonation creations, themes like depression are so quickly transposed by tongue-in-cheek attitude and sassy spirit that the dancers take the audience with them on their physically energetic, high octane powered, hallucinogenic trip.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party has completely sold out – but there will be a chance to see it online on Thursday 18 December at 6.50 pm, when it will be a simulcast on the BBC Arts website, the ROH YouTube channel and ROH website.

Main photo: Corey Culverwell as the White Rabbit in The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party by Alice Pennefather, courtesy ROH

Rachel Nouchi is a freelance journalist in the second year of an MA – Movement Direction: Teaching – at Central School of Speech and Drama.

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