As Christmas dance shows go, this is about as youthful a dose of innocent high-energy fun as you can get. While Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is on the Royal Opera House (ROH) main stage with the Royal Ballet doing their pukka high-art steps, downstairs in the Linbury ZooNation are letting rip with the anarchy of hip hop and another take on Alice – The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. It’s an apt title because this version concentrates on the party and the mad/strange characters in the Lewis Carroll story; and because they are mad it is set in a mental asylum with a newly-qualified psychotherapist (Ernest) put in charge of sorting them all out. Over the two acts (45 and 30 minutes) he makes some progress but ultimately fails and succumbs himself to the mad delights of a world where it is always tea time.
The ROH/ZooNation production team have gone to some lengths to make the event different from a normal Opera House visit. The Linbury foyer has been given a black makeover – in rich flock wall paper, which echoes the programme artwork – and with large rectangular tables installed for having tea at – which mimics the stage designs. The staging itself is in traverse with the audience either side. On a large raised platform at one end of the stage, is the musicians’ area together with free space for singing and performing. There are three multi-instrumental musicians, all good singers as well. Indeed one of the highlights is the songs (Josh Cohen and DJ Walde) from melancholic guitar strumming to reggae to very bass-driven rock, they are all very catchy, though at times it was a little over-amplified.
The first act sees the characters introduce themselves, often with a cameo dance and doctorly interventions from Ernest. The pace is fast and a narrator helps set the scene – so if you worry (as I did) at the absence of a synopsis in the programme, then don’t. The second act is much more about the tea party – an endless affair where some audience members get included – memorably Wayne McGregor on the press night, whom they turned out well in a fetching Chinese Coolie hat. There is more dancing in solos, general noddling and havin’-fun wiggling, whooping and shouting. The great success of the night is the two-way interaction with the audience where from the start you are told to make as much noise as you want and the dancers vamp it up and encourage more. A delightful Roland Rat type character (the Dormouse) also makes regular appearances in a teapot.
Dance-wise I’d hoped for more perhaps, but this show runs through to the end of December and they can’t really go too far in a hip hop sense without running risks. That said, there are some standout performance from Tommy Franzen as the Ernest the psychotherapist, Teneisha Bonner as truly scary and dominating Queen of Hearts and the laid-back Cheshire Cat of Duwane Taylor. I might also have hoped for a little more of a plot, but perhaps that’s asking too much of a show that is all about simply feeling good and being part of an event rather than just a spectator. We all went home happy.
It’s interesting to see the Royal Opera House increasingly flexing its production muscles and broadening its church. Down the road at the Vaudeville Theatre, an earlier ROH Linbury Christmas show, Wind in the Willows, is also packing them in. Such dance shows as this used to be done under the ROH2 banner but now the Royal Ballet is producer, which seems vaguely odd in a sales-and-marketing sense but I’m sure we will get used to it. One thing’s for sure, in the ROH and Sadler’s Wells, London (and the UK) have two formidable production houses with world reach and recognition.