Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (Royal Opera House)

Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (Royal Opera House, London, until February 9th)

⭐⭐⭐⭐

An unconventional rollercoaster ride of frenetic energy, madcap humour and increasingly unlikely classical music spin on the worlds of Lewis Carroll, receiving its premiere at the Royal Opera House, is probably the wackiest and weirdest thing you’ll see on stage for a long time.

The strangest omission from Gerald Barry’s extraordinary Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is the hookah-smoking caterpillar, for this truly bonkers production must surely have been written by someone with a plentiful supply of magic mushrooms.

Often bewildering, constantly bewitching this breathtakingly imaginative version, which crams both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass into less than an hour, throws everything at the audience (possibly including the Duchess’ kitchen sink) with the sort of zany comic creativity one might expect from The Goodies, Monty Python, The Goons, Roald Dahl and The Mighty Boosh rolled into one.

The show was premiered in a concert version in Los Angeles in 2016 but this is the first time it has been staged. Made with children in mind it’s something that all ages will love and be beguiled by as the topsy-turvy non-linear classic story unfolds on stage.

So many out-of-the-way things happen in this innovative show that you will begin to think that very few things indeed are really impossible, before or after breakfast. From the moment Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole we are presented with a non-stop array of magical characters (more than 50 played by 10 performers) in a fast and furious production that lacks any real narrative structure and simply gets curiouser and curiouser.

Try to psychoanalyse what’s going on in this revitalised timeless classic or attempt to find hidden messages as so many have done with the original children’s stories and you are likely to end up as mad as a hatter.

Characters such as the White Rabbit, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the March Hare, the Red Queen, the Duchess, the Mock Turtle, the Queen of Hearts and Humpty Dumpty flit so fleetingly by that they barely manage to sing one of their infamous songs or deliver part of a well-known line before they are whisked away. Blink and you will miss something as there is so much going on. While you may regret the exclusion of a favourite Wonderland or Looking Glass figure there is no time for disappointment  as so many are present.

Whatever the criticisms may be from Dodgson purists Alice’s Adventures Under Ground remains a triumphant Jabberwacky Wonderland. Barry’s music and libretto is catchy and fun, teasing snippets of opera and other classical delights for those who may care to look for them, and populating the stage with so many oddball yet lovable characters in pacy and unforgettable scenes that children are quite likely to rush home and demand to read the originals.

Director and designer Antony McDonald has created an enthralling spectacle of wizardry and virtuosity which has to be rewarded when the awards season comes along. A black and white, darkly menacing illustrated Victorian proscenium theatre set finds explosions of colour in a kaleidoscope of awesome costumes, some of which resemble their storybook counterparts, while others are stunningly original. There is hardly time enough to savour chessboard worlds, giant singing cakes and bottles, a giant baby barbershop quartet, horse-riding knights, exquisite animation, pink music stands serving as flamingos in the croquet match and Terry Gilliam-like illustrated Royals.

The multicoloured soundscape is also reflected in the high-energy performance of the orchestra conducted with vivacity by Thomas Adès, called upon to enliven the action and provide suitable accompaniment to the likes of the Lobster Quadrille, the Walrus and the Carpenter and a heartstopping Jabberwocky performed in Russian, French and German. And is Humpty’s foray into poetry in praise of addition and subtraction really set to the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?

It is hard to credit how the talented and versatile cast slip so easily between the quick-change roles. Two casts are being used, switching between performances of a production that is criminally only on for a week.

Claudia Boyle is a wide-eyed Alice whose initial bemusement turns to maturity and good sense; she well deserves the crown she earns in the final scene reaching some ridiculously high notes (there’s nearly 100 top Cs from her in the opera!) and keeping up with some alarming tongue twisters.

It is well-nigh impossible to pick star turns from such an accomplished company (who play up to 10 characters each), but Clare Presland as Red Queen and Queen of Hearts, Hilary Summers as White Queen and Dormouse, Sam Furness as White King, White Rabbit and Mad Hatter and Mark Stone as the White Knight and bright-eyed, wide-grinned Cheshire Cat deserve special mention alongside Peter Tantsits, Joshua Bloom, Bianca Hopkins, Eloise Hymas and Lukas Hunt, who hovers in the background as a versatile Lewis Carroll.

Carroll created a surreal world in his two novels featuring Alice, classics which can cope with being reappraised and reinvented in any age. The Royal Opera House production ventures into his fantasy world with a complicated and deranged psychosis that will be a dream to some and a nightmare to others, but is the epitome of resourceful ingenuity and quality performance and production values.

David Guest

Images: Clive Barda

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