Book: Gregory Boyd (from the works of Lewis Caroll)
Music: Frank Wildhorn
Director: Lotte Wakeham
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
It isn’t often that Scotland is privy to the grand European première of a musical. Frank Wildhorn’s Wonderland is doing just this, arriving into the Edinburgh Playhouse prior to touring the UK.
Plummeting down the rabbit hole, or rather the elevator shaft of some high rise flats, the audience finds itself in some familiar territory. Arguably the most recognisable and important of fantasy texts, this (Alice in) Wonderland is rather simply decorated. When thinking of Wonderland, a variety of ludicrous locales is presented. The Hatter’s table, The Queen’s rose garden and the Caterpillar’s mushroom. Only the Hatter’s table makes an appearance and a rather lacklustre one at that. In fact, it’s the transformation of this table into the Hatter’s cold factory walkway which presents us with what could have been an intelligent text which fell short.
The writing takes chances, small chances mind, in attempting to communicate a message. A rather sobering point we are all very familiar with; identity. There’s a strong-hearted, well-placed attempt at pursuing the cause of our female leads, that while we desire change, often it has adverse effects. The three very strong female leads (Alice, her daughter Ellie and the Hatter) are paralleled by the Looking Glass. In arguably an attempted feminist text, they try to spread a message of controlling our own identity without the need of (male) authorisation. Brilliant. So why does Alice have a pointless love interest who needs to tell her to save her daughter? Surely this would have been a stronger production with a simple Mother and daughter relationship?
Floating in what could have been an ocean of mediocrity are small islands of bliss. None more so than the Mad Hatter, Natalie McQueen. In this version of Wonderland, our infamous Hatter is both the bizarre and charming tea lover we adore, but also something more. Following a transformation, Hatter becomes an unhinged, sociopathic and yet oh so adorable antagonist to the Queen of Hearts. This piece of genius, however, is drowned in last minute, tacked on redemption which feels rushed.
Indeed, rushed is the simplest way to describe the issues with this production. Our beloved epitome of disorder The Cheshire Cat is the largest disappointment. By no means the fault of performer Dominic Owen, but rather a very serious writing and directing error. This knock-off Russel Brand is not the grinning being we know and love. If one desires to update or alter a character so ingrained in the audience’s mind, all the power to them. It takes tremendous creativity to manipulate a beloved literary character into something new, but do something interesting with them.
As expected Frank Wildhorn’s score is rammed with power ballads. It allows Kerry Ellis, Natalie McQueen, Dave Willetts and even Wendi Peters to belt out emotionally hard-hitting numbers, but they resign the others to forgettability. McQueen’s number I Will Prevail knocks out the audience. It’s powerful, performed exceptionally and subtly conveys the message without wrapping it in heavy dialogue.
Wonderland is one of those productions which deserves more. A seed of intelligence is smothered in heavy dialogue and bland incarnations of iconic characters. It is, however, inventive with its take on the Mad Hatter, who is undoubtedly the star and there are solid vocals from Willetts and Ellis accompanied by an impressive band of eight. A new, unique take on a tale close to our literary hearts.
Runs until 28 January 2017 | Image: Paul Coltas