Classical review: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Holland Park Opera, London


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The Independent Culture

Most ‘children’s operas’ are not really that at all, but Holland Park Opera – as its general manager has explained in these columns – is aiming its “Alice” squarely at the youthful end of the market. The background of its composer Will Todd is suitably eclectic, ranging from a jazz Mass, to oratorios, to an anthem for last year’s royal diamond jubilee; its designer Leslie Travers’s most recent exploit was the inspired staging of the Aldeburgh “Grimes on the Beach”; conducting and direction are by Martin Duncan and Stuart Stratford, versatile operators both.

‘Welcome to Wonderland!’ booms a florid-faced Victorian, ushering us into a series of tree-canopied glades. ‘And be ready to move where the action goes.’ We find ourselves facing photographs of a grey wasteland labelled Grimthorpe, and a squabbling grey-clad family marches towards us on a giant chess-board, while a large white rabbit waits in a cage. Alice (Fflur Wyn) appears – wide-eyed, bewildered, a proper little Victorian – and sets the rabbit (James Cleverton) free; he bounds off exultantly, beckoning us to follow.

Now we meet a suitably didactic Humpty-Dumpty (Patricia Orr), a Cheshire Cat with electric-blue fur and detachable smile (James Laing), and Tweedles Dum and Dee (Ciara Hendrick and Elaine Tait) straight out of a Tenniel drawing. On we go again, after a philosophical debate which ends with Humpty falling off his wall, to another glade where a green caterpillar dozes over a half-eaten toadstool and puffs on his hookah: this is Keel Watson’s incarnation of one of Carroll’s most vivid creations, and he does a very fair imitation of Paul Robeson singing an adapted version of Ol’ Man River, with which Alice joins in.

For music fills every second of the show. Alice’s songs vary in style between West End musical and pure Sondheim; the bands awaiting us at each stage of the journey do Thirties Palm Court and Balkan gypsy; when the Red Queen comes on to sing ‘Off with their heads’ – Robert Burt as a high-camp psychopath – we’re almost back in the world of “The Mikado”. For the Mad Hatter’s tea-party – Tenniel again the influence for a surreal set with choreography to match – the loudest echoes are of the Yellow Brick Road.

Maggie Gottlieb’s libretto is sophisticated, but the show is such fun, and so well sung, that not even the youngest kids get bored. Weather permitting - and it did for the premiere – this is a knock-out.