Alice on the Underground, Chicken Shed Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

This year's must-see musical journey has to be Alice on the Underground from the Chicken Shed Theatre Company.

We first see Alice waking up to the fraught Monday morning routine of her "dysfunctional" family. Everyone shouts, especially at Alice, while her mother is distracted by a lover who demands a fry up with all the energy and double entendre that hunger, eggs and sausages can convey. Straightaway we are in familiar territory - and we know this is going to be fun.

One of the biggest laughs occurs early on with the appearance of a meek, woolly hatted woman carrying files. Her introduction "Hallo, I'm Susan... and I'm losing it" is all the punch line you need to know that she's the social worker. With the appearance of the family's uptight little Englander neighbours there's more bickering. Alice has had enough and goes looking for love.

The writer/director Chris Bond draws his inspiration from Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland, but updates it for the 21st century. Everyone we see is "typical". Yet these are not caricatures - they are humorous and touching, menacing and lost. They are people we know, from Walkman man, mobile man and six-pack man to the three girls preparing for a spot of stealing with malice. Alice (Emma Cambridge) is preyed upon by all and sundry.

Later on she is lured by a smiling, purring pimp into his Tunnel of Love where two punters argue over her. This is a turning point, since Alice is shown some sympathy by the tart with the heart - the fabulous Duchess, but first, Alice has been told to find "Rock Bottom" and sure enough, she stumbles on a crack den where the Queen of Hearts suggest the only solution for Alice is to be out of it, or "off with her head".

Meanwhile, this descent into an urban Hades is interspersed with a real sense of mounting despair from the mother and sister - and neighbours - as they search for Alice.

Yet this threatening grimness is given such punchy music and dynamic language that you can only feel a sense of identity with the all these struggling individuals. The parallels with Lewis Carroll are used to give poignant and playful insights into human nature.

Alice has a certain empathy with forgetful Father William, the drunk who shouts "shite" at passers-by. Alice shows faith in his story - about a woman and a child who might, or might not be his wife and daughter. Then there is the woman who comes begging - all floral scarf and bundled baby. But the baby has a pig's face. When Alice asks why, the woman spits out a contemptuous song to explain that the baby is becoming what people think and say about him, growing up to despise and hate the world in return.

Touring to Birmingham Repertory Theatre (0121 236 4455) tonight to Saturday; Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch, Essex (01708 443333) 27 Aug to 18 Sept