views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Opera Holland Park
19th July 2014


These days, I may spend every waking moment soaking in as much culture as I can find (a never ending task when you live in London), but when I was only small, much to my mother's horror, I apparently slept through a full length Gilbert and Sullivan. Will Todd's operatic version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with a libretto from Maggie Gottlieb, is however a far more accessible piece for little ones. Inspired by Lewis Carroll's classic children's novel, this is an opera which captivates those of all ages and may even help foster an early interest in the arts - combine that with a ridiculously low ticket price, and it's hard to find much not to like about this production.

Not all of Carroll's chapters have survived in this modern retelling, but to get the story down to 75 minutes, many of the edits have been necessary. The omission of the Caucus Race is unlikely to trouble anyone, and an abridged version of A Mad Tea-Party is still long enough to delight. The story unfolds in distinct areas of the park, and we promenade between them, meeting the different characters as we go along. It's not an immersive piece, but the children in the audience are clearly drawn into this new fantasy world nonetheless.

When out and about with her parents (Victoria Simmonds and Robert Burt), Alice (Fflur Wyn) lets a talking rabbit (James Cleverton) out of his cage and follows him to Wonderland. It's less of a tumble down the rabbit hole, and more of a scamper around Holland Park. In a move reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz - you were there and you were there - Alice's bratty siblings (Ciara Hendrick and Elaine Tate) are transformed into Tweedle Dum (Hendrick) and Tweedle Dee (Tate), with Alice's parents becoming the Mad Hatter (Simmonds) and Red Queen (Burt). Genders are reversed in this topsy turvy world full of bright colours, twisted logic and anthropomorphic creatures.

There is apparently a back up plan if it rains and whilst performing indoors might admittedly result in better acoustics, walking from one incredible scene to another in the blazing sunshine helps to make the magic of Wonderland seem that little bit more real. Promenade pieces are never without their minor issues, but the production would lose some of its charm from being indoors. Director Martin Duncan fully exploits the space and makes one small part of the park feel like something much bigger and more exciting. Leslie Travers' design is bold and colourful - the setting for the tea-party is a lot of fun and he deals well with challenges such as the Drink Me bottle and the Cheshire Cat's grin.

Conductor Matthew Waldren and his 11-strong orchestra do a sterling job in the heat, the music always delivered with gusto and skill, but whilst the background noise of the park doesn't manage to beat the musicians, sometimes some of the singing is lost. It's a difficult balancing act for musical director Stuart Stratford, who largely gets it right, but battles with the great outdoors. The Caterpillar (Keel Watson) is often inaudible when he hits the low notes - he may well hit them perfectly, but we can't always hear, and that's a shame, as we miss out on some of Todd's witty lyrics. Those problems aside, Watson's rendition of The Wonderland Blues is a real treat. It's hard to single out any one performer for praise, they all bring a lot to their respective roles. However, Wyn has to be commended for her strong vocals and the ease with which she engages with the young audience.

There are a few throwaway lines for the adults - when Alice questions why a magical rabbit can't escape on his own steam, he retorts "it's a question of opposable thumbs". This may be primarily aimed at the just over fives, but Alice's Adventures in Wonderland will win over the whole family. It's not Carroll verbatim, but it's still packed with a lot of the shame charm. Given the low cost of a ticket, this makes for an affordable and memorable day out and is not to be missed.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland opened on 19th July and runs until 2nd August 2014 at Opera Holland Park.

Nearest tube station: Holland Park (Central)

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