Wonderland at the New Victoria theatre in Woking last night was a bit of a surprise. Not sure what to expect on arrival it seemed to be appealing to a large audience intent on holiday fun with kids, an expectation of the event to be a family affair. The wonder of it all wasn’t that this wasn’t necessarily a musical for kids although the imagery and large characterisation of the Wonderland characters made it appealing.
Alice (Kerry Ellis) is a struggling single mother, hitting 40 who hates her job but who has been so undermined by her controlling ex husband telling her she needed his protection, that she believes she will never get the job she loves and dreams of. She has always wanted to be a writer. She had started to believe what he had told her about herself and given up on her dreams, her daughter Ellie (Naomi Morris) desperate to see her take control, feels she should move on, go back to the teaching she gave up because her husband didn’t like her earning more than him, meanwhile Alice doesn’t even notice the geeky next door neighbour Jack (Stephen Webb) who works in the council recycling dept nursing dreams of being a singer and worships her from afar.
One day with her car stolen making her late for work she is fired. Fed up and tired she repeats how she ‘doesn’t want to live in the real world’ Ellie spies a large rabbit hopping past their tower block and follows him into a broken lift. Panicking as the lift door closes brings the rabbit back again who says he will take them down, and that is how they get to Wonderland ladies and gentlemen in these days of technology or rather disused lifts and depressing grey, high-rise, flats.
Wonderland is run by a tyrannical Queen of Hearts (Wendi Peters) who makes regular threats to chop off heads unchallenged by the residents; after all, they only lose their head once meaning they can’t return to the real world that gave them so much grief, and by complying they have an easy life and don’t question her authority. An encounter with the Caterpillar (Kayi Ushe) who Alice looks to as a guru, the Cheshire Cat (Dominic Owen) (both brilliant performances of comedy and cool) who tells them to move forward always, brings them to the magic mirror where they are advised by the White Rabbit – a judge in the real world, more like Yoda in this – that the mirror turns you into someone who you could be, maybe want to be, maybe should have been – Jack and Ellie jump in quickly, Jack’s metamorphosis into the singer he has always wanted to be, fronting a boy band with stage moves is a hilarious moment and great vocal though longer than I needed to get the gist. Ellie, comes out as the teenager she would be, had she not felt unnoticed by her mother’s grief and responsible for her happiness. She stirs the Mad Hatter (Natalie McQueen) to go through the mirror, take responsibility for her hat factory and over throw the Queen, but the mirror change for her makes her as power hungry, turning her hat factory into a sweat shop nearly killing the dormouse (who was a lawyer in real life) in the process. Ellie, realising that her explanation of how power works to show unity to remove a dictator has resulting in her abetting another, worse one to the seat of power and yet one who, despite causing more suffering, it turns out is as frightened and confused about the change, repeating ‘that’s how power works’ like a frightened child and needs to go back, she didn’t need to change, she was told she wasn’t enough but as it turned out, she always was.
Alice refuses the mirror, refuses change until the realisation that it is what is needed to save her daughter under threat of being beheaded so the Queen can keep her in Wonderland as advisor. Finally Alice takes action, takes back the parent role, protects her daughter and the Mad Hatter goes back and all is well.
Perhaps this spoke to many people in similar positions the paradigm of fighting for a loved one overriding a lack of courage is always prevalent in the roles where a parent is called upon to save their child. That they have made an adaptation that brings these themes together recognising in Alice an everywoman facing those dilemmas being more common today, as Jack says to her ‘It’s not a unique story’ yet reaches the time old themes of courage coming from facing fear, from the ordinary heroisms of the everyday and from the different archetypes we set up as friend or enemy; always an extreme and yet existing in layers in all of us, the caterpillar as a guru denied he knew anything when Alice relied on him and quoted himself back, the cat causing trouble to be the one to say ‘I told you I was a trickster…..’ putting responsibility for her decisions firmly back with her.
And Ellie – her own natural chrysalis being shed from dutiful daughter to separate human and the dichotomy of adolescence back to the baby again who still needs her mum when she may have burned her wings in a too bright world.
The characterisations, costumes and comedy in this made it a pleasant alternative to the original story, still enjoyed by many but by those expecting the more traditional this was a delightful twist. This isn’t a jukebox musical the new songs are for the story, but there are a diverse range and the cool stylings of some of the choreography and costumes make it a show that has a broader appeal. The vocals of all the performers are stand out excellent, though a couple of songs in the second half had the music dominating occasionally making the words hard to make out. The magic mirror did look like a giant toilet seat though and the topiary of the bushes at the entrance to Wonderland did look like they were left by a giant cat so I’ll leave that subtext to be explored by finer minds that don’t boggle.
The cast got a very enthusiastic response the whole way through which is a great thing for new work albeit on a well loved theme which can be a risk. I’d take the risk if I were you Wonderland is at New Victoria Theatre until Sat 8 April 2017 http://www.atgtickets.com