Alice in Wonderland, RSC The Barbican, London

Spuriouser and spuriouser
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The Independent Culture

It is a truth universally acknowledged – well, in our house, at any rate – that there are two near-certainties during the Christmas season. One is that the Young Vic will produce a show that introduces children to a new, thrillingly inventive theatrical language and alerts them to the magic of live performance. The other is that the Royal Shakespeare Company will do no such thing – proffering, instead, a production that has a handsome budget where its imagination should be.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass continues the stuffy RSC tradition begun with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and continued last year with a musical version of The Secret Garden. Clearly, no one could accuse the company of PC multiculturalism in its choices. Watching Rachel Kavanaugh's staging of this new, pedestrian adaptation by Adrian Mitchell, you keep thinking: never can such colourful sets (all deep scarlets and glossy apple-greens) have given house-room to such colourless performances. There's not a twitch of genuine eccentricity in the entire cast, nor anyone with enough voice to project the tuneless sub-Weill and sub-Sondheim ditties (by Terry Davies and Stephen Warbeck), nor anyone who can execute a dance step with characterful conviction and zest.

The inhabitants of Wonderland should have a comically alarming authority. Here, they are just a succession of vibrant costumes. (Some of them are, admittedly, appealing: I particularly liked the blue sleeping-bag body, with its rows of woolly gloves, of the hookah-smoking caterpillar.) The new Harry Potter film is so stuffed with theatrical personalities, it looks at times like a fancy-dress version of the Evening Standard drama awards lunch. This Alice is the film's antithesis: a magic-free tundra of non-idiosyncrasy. And talk about killing Carroll's jokes with misplaced "improvements". For example, the Mad Hatter's tea table stretches into the wings as though into infinity (which is not the implication of the blurring in Tenniel's illustration). But that surreal touch destroys the gag about how, in a world where it's always teatime, there's no interval for washing-up – which leaves the creatures on a hapless recycling loop.

You suspect, from the way the changes of scale are handled at the start, that you're in for an uninspired time, theatrically. True, everyone can't be Robert Lepage, but there are surely less inert ways of dramatising Alice's disturbing alterations in size than by simply running a corridor of shrinking doors behind her and trundling on dinkily diminished and awfully dead-looking models of thitherto life-sized beings.

Katherine Heath's charmless Alice does little to physicalise these muscular processes, while the production as a whole fails to give you any sense that she is on a weird journey. Instead, a parade of famous bits are wheeled in to her, so that she seems to stand in the same relation to the story as a Generation Game contestant to that conveyor belt of dubious domestic delights. But then, drama is not the show's strong suit. The climax of the trial in Act One is so badly rushed that it's quite possible to miss the Red Queen's Kafkaesquely cock-eyed declaration: "Sentence first – verdict afterwards."

In mitigation, it might be said that Alice rarely works on stage. The most creative response is Jan Svankmajer's startling Surrealist movie. The video costs a fraction of the price of a family trip to this production and will give your children years of entrancement. My nine-year-old assistant thought the RSC show was "desperate". Desperate and, paradoxically, (I'd add) deeply complacent.

To 24 Nov, 020-7638 8891

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