Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Royal Opera House, London, review: more spectacle than ballet

Christopher Wheeldon's Alice dazzles, but both dance and characterisation have to fight to make it through the whirl

Zo Anderson
Monday 02 October 2017 12:33 BST
Laura Morera and Edward Watson in a curiouser and curiouser production
Laura Morera and Edward Watson in a curiouser and curiouser production (ROH)

Adapting Alice for The Royal Ballet, Christopher Wheeldon created a show that is much more spectacle than ballet. Video projections swirl and dazzle, tiny doors dance, the Cheshire Cat floats smiling through the action. Both dance and characterisation have to fight to make it through the whirl.

Created in 2011, Wheeldon’s staging has gone on to international success, danced by companies from Australia to Germany. This Royal Ballet revival is confidently danced, though the production’s strengths and weaknesses remain. It’s propelled by Bob Crowley’s dazzling designs and some very assured illusions. Joby Talbot’s lively score has strong themes and a sharp ear for caricature.

The Alice books don’t have much plot: Carroll’s downright heroine just keeps encountering curiouser and curiouser creatures and people. Wheeldon and his librettist, Nicholas Wright, give the story a framing narrative, so that the Wonderland characters become echoes of the real-life Alice Liddell’s family and friends. Her mother becomes the monstrous Queen of Hearts, while a sacked gardener’s boy becomes the persecuted Knave of Hearts. A breathless opening scene sets this up, though it’s too rushed to create dramatic depth. Then we plunge down the rabbit hole.

The rest of the ballet is a series of setpieces, from the special effects of Alice growing and shrinking to cameos for the Duchess, the Mad Hatter and more. It’s episodic and uneven. Crowley and Talbot provide an ominous setting for Gary Avis’s monstrous Duchess, but Wheeldon’s choreography is just tussling. Steven McRae’s tap dancing Mad Hatter makes more of an impact, rattling off speedy footwork while Alice bounces on the springiest of sponge cakes.

Lauren Cuthbertson dances with fluid ease and elegance in her created role, scampering neatly around the weirdness. Wheeldon’s Alice remains an underdrawn character, though Cuthbertson is lyrical with Federoc Bonelli’s elegant Knave of Hearts.

The Queen of Hearts is a better role. Wheeldon finds dancing jokes for her, with terrified cavaliers partnering her through a parody of The Sleeping Beauty and a slinky, homicidal solo. Laura Morera switches neatly from regal authority to bloodthirsty relish. The production finds its dancing feet as it goes on, with a twirling flower waltz and appealing numbers for the garden scene.

Still, it’s the stage magic that makes it. The puppet Cheshire Cat is charming and unsettling. Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington’s enchanting projections play with scale or create dreaming landscapes that appear or vanish in the blink of an eye.

'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' is in repertory until 28 October. Box office 020 7304 4000,

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