views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Alice: A New Musical
St. James Theatre
12th March 2015


Hannah Toy as Alice

Photography © Darren Bell

"Four young Oysters hurried up, All eager for the treat... Four other Oysters followed them, And yet another four; And thick and fast they came at last, And more, and more, and more." That's kind of the feeling you get with Alice adaptations - you've eaten every one but unlike the Walrus and the Carpenter, you've sometimes had your fill after one or two. An immediate apology, then, if this review is seen through the looking glass of the millions of adaptations. I understand it's not easy to do something original with as popular a source material as this, so how does a 45-minute musical production get on? Surprisingly well, actually.

Rather than a straight adaptation, writers Paul Harnett and Rebecca Crookshank play fast and loose with the whys and wherefores, updating the book to make Alice (Hannah Toy) a rejected and isolated girl, berated by her frankly hideous mother for not having friends. So down the rabbit hole of her imagination she falls, meeting all the usual characters along the way in what is essentially a 'best bits with songs'. Some get a little mixed up - the Dodo, not the inexplicably French mouse, for example, is the authority on William the Conqueror here. It's a change that does no harm. And in aiding the attempt to whack on a lunch-hour piece of entertaining drama, it can be forgiven.

In fact, it's when director Harnett et al attempt to find their own path that this piece is at its strongest. Mateo Oxley's Cheshire Cat is not the giggling buffoon of Disney, nor the mangy, skeletal American McGee's, nor indeed the Stephen Fry-voiced abomination in Tim Burton's dreary CGI-fest. He's a feline Freddie Mercury by way of Frank N Furter, an idea of temptation and powerful sexual awakening - the only bit of subtext that this shallow but undoubtedly entertaining interpretation. Ditto Kerry Enright's force of nature diva Queen of Hearts - providing us with the ultimate musical success, I'll Take Your Head. Jamie Coleman's Hoxton, hipster Caterpillar soon was inspired.

Less successful, through interpretation rather than the fault of the actor, was the Mad Hatter (Dougie Carter). A little too 'Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd doing Johnny Depp in the aforementioned Alice car crash' for me. With hints of Russell Brand. I felt like I'd seen it before even if I hadn't. Although whoever was responsible for the configuration of his tea table needs a pat on the back. Toy as Alice, too, is undoubtedly a great dancer, has a good voice and can act well enough - even if some of her intonation was a little less than full conviction. But to not really let her go crazy with dancing, or restrict her vocally with whisper-songs of I'm Lost seemed like a bit of a waste.

As for the songs, yes, surprisingly nice. Daniel Williams and Jay Reynolds between them have collaborated or written for a whole host of people, not all of whom I hate. Each piece has a distinct, interesting feel that's bang-on tonally where it needs to be, but the biggest earworm, and simply the most wonderfully delivered, was the Queen's. Still, I'd be happy to listen to another 10, if they could come up with them.

It was almost a disappointment that this show ran bang to time as it seemed it was just hitting its stride when we got it cruelly ripped away. The imagery, connotations and logic puzzles in the original text are so rich and ripe for postmodernist subversion and expansion - and not one modern interpretation has that quite right yet. While still lacking in that depth, the style and pizzazz Harnett brings could be, with some thought, a more than wonderful store front for some deeper ideas. As it stands, though, if you'd rather sit at your desk with a soggy Tesco sandwich working out "Which waste of human flesh are you?" on Buzzfeed, off with your head!

Alice: A New Musical ran from 9th to 21st March 2015 at St. James Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Victoria (Victoria, Circle, District)

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