Edinburgh Playhouse, Edinburgh – until 28 January 2017
Guest reviewer: Martin Gray
Alice is having the Worst Day. The controlling ex she’d have back in a second is getting remarried, her car’s been stolen, she’s got the sack. Nice guy Jack from downstairs hasn’t a Cheshire cat in hell’s chance of cheering her up, while sensible daughter Ellie’s optimism falls on deaf ears. All Alice wants is to be in a colourful fantasyland, somewhere with a hero to rescue her.
Hang on, is that a White Rabbit?
In two shakes of a bunny’s tail, Alice, Ellie and Jack find themselves in Wonderland, where the responsibilities of the real world are replaced by a never-ending teatime, replete with jam tarts. Mind, the Red Queen may just look at you and shout ‘Off with her head’…
How many adaptations of and spins on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass have we seen over the years? There’s been everything from the Disney cartoon to Tim Burton’s freakifying of Helena Bonham Carter to Bryan Talbot’s superb graphic novel Alice in Sunderland. Does the world really need another musical version?
As it turns out, yes! This has something new to offer in the shape of a splendid variety of catchy songs, sharply tweaked characters and a message that’s abundantly clear without being rammed down our throats, Drink Me label attached.
Kerry Ellis, she of Wicked, We Will Rock You, Cats – you name it, she’s conquered it – is perfectly cast as Alice, who’s hit 40 and lost her spirit. Ellis can do lovely in a suburban way that suits the role, but there’s nothing ordinary about her voice, it’s an astonishing instrument.
And she’s well matched by Natalie McQueen’s brilliantly bonkers Mad Hatter, whose arc gifts her the best lines, which she delivers with relish. Hatter and Alice’s duet This is Who I Am raises the roof in a way that nods to Wicked’s Defying Gravity without being in any way a copy.
The other best number for two, I Am My Own Invention, comes from Alice and the White Rabbit, in the form of Les Mis legend Dave Willetts. It’s a gorgeous, lyrical statement that you don’t have to conform to anyone’s idea of who you are. Having spent most of the show in an extended cameo, Willetts gets to unleash his star quality and beautiful tone.
Also not taking a big part, but making a huge impression, is Red Queen Wendi Peters, who’s come a long way since her Corrie days as Cilla Battersby-Brown. Looking more than a little Dame Angela Lansbury, she shows off her comic chops and serious pipes on two witty numbers, Hail the Queen and Off With Their Heads.
And there’s more. There’s Stephen Webb’s likeable Jack who, when he takes his specs off is – surprise! – rather the hottie. He has great fun as a Boyzone-style shining knight, while Naomi Morris has a fine time as Ellie before and after she goes through a rather chatty Looking Glass.
There’s Ben Kerr as a charming March Hare, Kayi Ushe as a soulful Caterpillar/duvet, Dominic Owen’s dandy Cheshire Cat… the entire ensemble is full of verve. They may not feature in every one of Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy’s numbers, but along with the orchestra – the Alice Band? – they’re the backbone of the show.
The sets are eye-catching too, from Alice’s real world block of flats, a nightmare of forced perspective, to the subtle rabbit hole light tunnel that frames Wonderland.
This is a new musical so you might not be singing along, but it’s a safe bet you’ll be singing a song or two on the way out.