Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Royal Opera House, London


In The Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a late switch of heroines makes less difference than you’d think. On opening night, Sarah Lamb stepped in for an indisposed Lauren Cuthbertson – a dancer who has suffered more than her share of illness, missing several high-profile performances in the past few months. Lamb is a perky Alice, but Christopher Wheeldon’s 2011 ballet is more about dazzling illusions than about his heroine.

Following a scenario by playwright Nicholas Wright, Wheeldon starts the story in Lewis Carroll’s Oxford, where the parents of young Alice Liddell are preparing for a tea party. Her family and the guests reappear in her Wonderland dream, with Edward Watson’s bookish Carroll transformed into a twitchy White Rabbit and her mother now a monstrous Queen of Hearts.

Designer Bob Crowley and projection designers Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington conjure an amazing Wonderland. Alice falls as a puppet through a whirling, hypnotic rabbit hole, and lands as a human dancer among a shimmering wall of growing and shrinking doors. She and the White Rabbit sail on a paper boat through a lavender-tinted landscape, full of scampering silhouetted animals. The Cheshire Cat, a brilliant bunraku puppet, deserves its round of applause.

Though Wheeldon gives her a romance with Federico Bonelli’s lyrical Jack of Hearts, his Alice is a largely passive character, watching everybody else’s numbers from the sidelines. Lamb is best in Alice’s tantrum dance, as she tries to reach the handle on an outsized door: I wish Wheeldon had given her more bossiness.

Too many dancers are weighed down by their characters, or by overextended scenes. The Duchess’s cottage is terrifying, a kitchen full of dead pigs and meat grinders, given extra menace by the blare of Joby Talbot’s score. Beyond the gruesome setting, though, Gary Avis’s Duchess doesn’t have much to do.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party works better. There’s adorable theatrical detail to the designs – a trampoline sponge cake, theatre footlights shaped like teacups – but the Hatter also gets a rattling tap solo. Alexander Campbell manages not to be  upstaged by his own mad wig and costume, and copes breezily with the tap steps. Watson’s White Rabbit is charmingly twitchy, all nerves and quivers.

The best dancing role is the Queen of Hearts. Zenaida Yanowsky makes a magnificent, monstrous diva, swaggering through Wheeldon’s Sleeping Beauty parody and flirting viciously with her terrified court. When one of Yanowsky’s crimson curls came loose, she brushed it imperiously aside, then bickered with her King (Christopher Saunders) about fixing it: all in character, all hilarious.

Until 13 April. Box office 020 7304 4000.