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Review: Wonderland at New Theatre Oxford

“I would only ever try and perfect walking on my hands if it meant I could do so onstage as a Cheshire cat”; Sam Bennett writes
Wonderland is at New Theatre Oxford until 25th February.

"The influence of Hyacinth Bucket on Wendi Peters’ Queen of Hearts is thankfully evident, and she exercises the ability to eat onstage during scenes in which she must also rapidly fire out lines shrilly and coherently."

Single mum Alice lives in “the real world”. On the day she turns 40 her car is stolen and she gets the sack. Cue her return to Wonderland, where Lewis Carroll first put her as a girl.

 

This is Frank Wildhorn's new musical based on the classic Alice stories. This time Alice (Rachael Wooding) follows her daughter, Ellie (Naomi Morris), as well as the familiar White Rabbit (Dave Willetts) down to Carroll’s world – after this we track her endeavour to leave it.

The production propels us through Alice’s life outside of Wonderland, explaining her existence in one song peppered with snappy dialogue, saving us from numerous scenes detailing her personal and professional woes, and placing us in Wonderland as quickly as possible.


 

From here on in the characterisation and movement isn’t quite as bizarre and crazy as I’d hoped. A bit more weirdness and a few more acrobatics would not damage things in this case. That said, there are admirable moments from individual characters; I would only ever try and perfect walking on my hands if it meant I could do so onstage as a Cheshire cat – as Dominic Owen is doing at the New Theatre this week, while singing at the same time.

Further, Natalie McQueen portrays two Mad Hatters: an awkward, harmless, nerdy one and (post going through the looking glass) a confident and ruthless creation hungry for the Queen of Hearts’ position. Whether you like what McQueen does with the Mad Hatter or not, it’s undeniable that she creates two contrasting portraits of the character, a feat integral to the plot the show follows.

The influence of Hyacinth Bucket on Wendi Peters’ Queen of Hearts is thankfully evident, and she exercises the ability to eat onstage during scenes in which she must also rapidly fire out lines shrilly and coherently. Her song, ‘Off With Their Heads’, is one I’d been looking forward to having already seen her perform it excellently in a concert last year. Though the song itself is quite clumsily inserted in the script (unlike the others which blend in to it cleanly), Peters does not disappoint with it – mixing high kicks in high heels with a strong vocal.

The above number takes place in Act 2, which on the whole has more richness and depth than the first half, with its dark opening setting the tone for the new Mad Hatter’s quest for power. Also the best songs are saved for after the interval, namely the war cry that is ‘I Will Prevail’ and the moving ‘I Am My Own Invention’ as sung by Dave Willetts and Rachael Wooding.

While the involvement of a stereotypical, smooth, handsome man for Alice to fall in love with strikes me as odd in a world that lends itself to nonconformity and eccentricity, looking past that I identify in Wildhorn’s musical a lesson about being true to yourself, put to atmospheric music that does not cross over into self-indulgence. The mystical safety curtain that greets you as you take your seat is a fitting sign of the set you’re about to see, which is impressively trippy and – to quote Wendi Peters – “Wicked-esque”. When decorated with the colourful characters thought up over 150 years ago, it becomes even more visually pleasing, and you are transported to a place arguably more attractive than the real world.

- Sam Bennett

 

Wonderland is at New Theatre Oxford until 25th February.

 

Related Articles: An interview with Wendi Peters | Wildhorn: the polite purveyor of Wonderland