The Mad Hatter, review: The Royal Opera House's first hip hop production is a bonkers success

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London

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ZooNation Dance Company’s new hip hop take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland takes off once we reach Wonderland itself. A throng of splendid dancers jump onto the giant tea table, showing off brilliant moves. It takes a while to get going, but it’s a show to send you out smiling.

This is ZooNation’s first foray into the Royal Opera House, and the venue’s first hip hop production. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is a counterpart to The Royal Ballet’s Alice, also playing at the Opera House this Christmas, though it’s a shorter and wackier response to the material. Led by choreographer Kate Prince, ZooNation is known for its joyful, family-friendly productions, including Some Like It Hip Hop.

The Mad Hatter starts with the idea of madness. Ernest, a sober-minded therapist, meets a selection of Lewis Carroll’s  characters at the Institution for Extremely Normal Behaviour. The setting suggests medical definitions for their obsessions and quirks: the OCD White Rabbit worries about being late; Alice is losing her identity as she grows and shrinks.

It’s carefully done, but effortful. The conditions mute these characters rather than giving them inner life, while the constant voiceover introductions are a jarring, stop-starting the onstage action. Since the Alice books don’t have conventional plots, there’s little narrative to move the characters forward. The format does give a glimpse of Prince’s fine cast, including many ZooNation regulars.

Tommy Franzén is full of nervous focus as Ernest, twanging with tension as he listens to the case histories. Teneisha Bonner’s regal Queen of Hearts is gloriously high-handed, all commanding gestures and swishing red skirts. As the Mad Hatter, Isaac “Turbo” Baptiste has a laid-back style, giving a sense of cool to his quirkiest moves. Duwane Taylor’s Cheshire Cat is both genial and slightly sinister, while Lizzie Gough is a forlorn Alice.

Once Ernest is drawn into Wonderland, the show explodes with energy. Ben Stones’ set takes us from the monochrome institution to a colourful fantasy land, with grassy floor and twinkling fairy lights. The band, composers Josh Cohen and DJ Walde with singer Elliotte Williams-N’Dure, move from voiceovers into singing; even the sound balance works better.

Best of all, the dancing has more scope. Prince and ZooNation have a great gift for happy hip hop. Creating a narrative about escaping restrictions, this second half is all freewheeling fun. As the entranced Ernest, Franzén dances dreamily at first, a remote sleepwalker. Then he wakes up and lets rip, legs kicking like pistons over his head, rhythms seething through his body.

There’s a shameless star turn for a soul-singing dormouse puppet, and equally shameless audience participation. (On press night, you could see choreographer Wayne McGregor, wrapped up in a yellow feather boa, gamely taking tea with Alice.) Shaun Smith’s March Hare tumbles through acrobatic moves; Bonner manages to be imperious even while turning cartwheels. The large-scale group dances spill off and onto the table, soloists breaking into virtuoso kicks and spins or rejoining the whirl.

Until 3 January. Box office 020 7304 4000