Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
London, Royal Opera House
15 March 2013
Dave Morgan picture galleries:
Sarah Lamb & Steven McRae cast, 2012
Beatriz Stix-Brunell & Rupert Pennefather, 2013
Back for its third sold-out run and playing to ecstatically cheering audiences, Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has established itself as a huge success for the Royal Ballet and is clearly going to be with us for many years to come. Deservedly so, in a lot of ways: it’s a wonderful show – a technical spectacle like no other the company has ever produced, with juicy roles for a wide range of dancer-types, an instantly accessible score, and a story that everyone at least thinks they know. But…
…. the synopsis in the programme book is full of ellipses like that and they serve to highlight one of the major flaws of the piece: without Lewis Carroll’s written narrative, much of the ballet consists of a series of unrelated numbers. Some of them are so clever in themselves that you either don’t notice that or you don’t care, but the weaker ones – the Caucus race for instance – drag terribly, and if you haven’t picked up all the clues scattered in the opening scene you may find yourself watching the Caterpillar episode, for instance, and wondering what on earth it’s all about. Wheeldon’s attempt to provide a unifying thread through Alice’s love story works to some extent but the downside is that by making his heroine into the ubiquitous ballet girl-on-the-verge-of-womanhood he deprives us of the grumpy, opinionated ten-year-old who so endearingly drives the original story. But…
…if you can watch the first two acts as a sort of variety show, the story does come together in the last scenes, and on the way you’ll have enjoyed at least one creation of near-genius in the brilliantly imagined Cheshire Cat. The one thing I’d really like to see sharpened up somehow is the very end of Alice’s dream, the dance translation of her “You’re nothing but a pack of cards”, which takes her back to the real world; although the consequence is cleverly done – she pushes the nearest card and they all fall in turn like dominoes – there’s not enough build-up for us to understand that it’s a key moment, a slight but crucial blurring of a big dramatic climax which was one of the problems I also noticed in Wheeldon’s Danish Sleeping Beauty, too. (I suspect, incidentally, that this and many other details may have been much clearer to those who have seen the television or DVD version, which can direct the attention to the part of the stage where the important action is happening.)
The role of Alice herself must be one of the longest and most tiring in the company’s repertoire – she’s onstage almost the whole time and even when not dancing she’s permanently acting and reacting. Sarah Lamb stepped up into the first cast to replace Lauren Cuthbertson, unhappily still not fit after her long absence. She looks good – the dark wig somehow makes her features much clearer and therefore easier to read – and also seemed more outgoing and spontaneous than usual; my only wish was for a little more pronounced stroppiness to vary her slightly conventional girlish naughtiness. Federico Bonelli was the Knave of Hearts, the object of Alice’s developing affection – he’s charming, good-looking and amiable, all that could be asked for in what is actually a rather passive role for a hero.
The later stages of the ballet are completely stolen from these two by Zenaida Yanowsky’s wildly extravagant Queen of Hearts. Her take-off of Aurora’s Rose Adagio is probably the most popular number in the whole piece, topped for me by her acknowledgement of the resulting ovation – it’s a joy to watch how she can work the house. Alexander Campbell seemed a little subdued as the Mad Hatter, a role tailored very closely to the talents of its originator, Steven McRae, and even Gary Avis struggled to make the grotesquely caricatured Duchess more than intermittently amusing. Edward Watson, though, was perfect as the White Rabbit, twitching and worrying, and also as the stray tourist with a camera in the last moments of the epilogue.
So Wheeldon and his collaborators – Joby Talbot and Bob Crowley – have produced exactly what was presumably asked of them: an audience favourite which can be brought back year after year to play to guaranteed full houses and though I don’t believe it’s a great work of art, there’s no denying that it’s fun. Most of the time.