First published in The Times, Friday January 27 2017
Downtrodden single mother Alice (Kerry Ellis) is having a bad day. Her car has been stolen, she’s lost her house keys and when she arrives late for work her heartless boss fires her. Topping it all off, her ex-husband, for whom she still holds a torch, has been in touch with news of his latest marriage.
Clearly, we are not in Lewis Carroll territory, although his iconic characters are nominally present and correct in this contemporary musical update of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, written by Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy, with music by Frank Wildhorn. Their version of Alice sports killer boots and drops into Wonderland, accompanied by her teenage daughter (Naomi Morris) and socially awkward neighbour (Stephen Webb), by way of the out-of-order lift in her dingy high-rise block.
The greatest departure from the source material lies in the way Boyd and Murphy have structured the storyline. Where Carroll’s Alice meanders languidly through a series of stand-alone episodes, here she is on a mission to retrieve her lost inner strength and self esteem, in order that she might save Wonderland and its inhabitants from various power-hungry tyrants.
All of this would be more urgent were Alice faced with more worthy opponents. Wendi Peters’s Queen of Hearts is simply not threatening enough, while the Mad Hatter, played by Natalie McQueen, returns from a trip through the looking glass transformed into a wannabe fascist dictator, only to hastily see the error of her ways following a potted self-help lesson from our heroine.
Though there are some superb singers among the ensemble, notably Ellis, McQueen and Kayi Ushe as the philosophising caterpillar, the score is an unmemorable mix of by-numbers power ballads and Eighties pop. Some of the imagery seems drawn from that era, too. Webb’s nerdy Jack emerges from the looking glass in medallion and leathers, looking like The Hoff in Knight Rider, while Alice is creepily reborn in a virginal summer dress.
Most jarring of all is the show’s lack of regard for the endearing central conceit of Carroll’s oeuvre: the seriousness with which his supporting characters treat actions his real-world heroine considers nonsensical. In Wonderland, the cast is required to spend too much time affirming how “completely bonkers” they all are, to increasingly unappealing effect.
Box office: 0844 871 3014, to January 28. Touring UK and Ireland to August 19. wonderlandthemusical.com