ZooNation’s The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party has come a long way as a thoughtful Royal Opera House alternative to the Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Two years ago the latter was on the main Opera House stage and director Kevin O’Hare commissioned ZooNation to do an alternative take for the small Linbury Studio Theatre in the depths of the building. It worked well enough but the closure of the Linbury, while the ROH does some major changes, has really liberated Mad Hatter’s to reach its full potential in the larger and much more urban Roundhouse. It’s a theatre that invites the young and encourages easy audience interaction – why, they even allow drinks in the auditorium, which is so not ROH! With around 1000 more seats (1400 total) to be danced to from a thrust stage, the production has also been usefully revisited by Kate Prince (ZooNation’s artistic director and choreographer) and amended to include more drama and dance.
In this modern take on the Lewis Carroll classic the action takes place in Ladrington Brook, looking like a Victorian lunatic asylum and here called the “Institution for Extremely Normal Behaviour”. All the characters are inmates and Tommy Franzen rocks up as a new, and wet-around-the-ears, doctor charged with treating them. It takes a while for the plot to establish itself (not helped by the absence of a synopsis in the programme) but then it steadily picks up as characters do solos about their life and trials and Franzen tries to maintain some discipline despite all the anarchy that’s constantly breaking out – cue much hip hop dance. But it’s clever and emotional dance (and where I think the show has been strengthened particularly) and looks to use new movement to show character much more. And accompanying the movement is an energetic narrated script and excellent music by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde. I’d actually say the songs are strong enough to be issued as an album or download, and would probably sell like hotcakes at the end of the night. The band are also part of the action, performing above the stage and sometimes becoming part of the action below.
The first interval comes 70 minutes into the evening – which seems too long, and is my main criticism. After the interval, with the characters established, we actually get to the tea party itself and more individual dancing and the realisation for Franzen’s doctor (and us all) that none of us are normal and we all need to get along and be more tolerant of others.
Audience interaction is really encouraged and the whoops, shouts and whistles steadily grew through the night. Some in the audience also get to be part of the on-stage party and build the good vibe of us all being in it together even higher. It’s a cracking cast of communicators but if I have to single one out particularly it has to be Teneisha Bonner as the Queen of Hearts. Such a commanding, screaming, stage presence, she makes us all go weak at the knees.
By the end of the show we’ve long since forgotten the rather slow start and are all happy together at a show which satisfies as entertainment and with a considerate message. Mad Hatter’s has moved on as a production – I can’t see it going back to the small Linbury again and it could also usefully tour. What was a fine enough 3-star night is now a 4-star show, and I say, nicely done to all involved.