REVIEW: Wonderland, Sunderland Empire, until Saturday, February 4

Kerry Ellis and Stephen Webb as Jack and Alice
Kerry Ellis and Stephen Webb as Jack and Alice
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Venture down the rabbit hole to see Alice in Sunderland.

It takes an ambitious team to take on the much-beloved Lewis Carroll novels of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Kerry Ellis as Alice

Kerry Ellis as Alice

You can’t compete with the fantastical nature of a child’s imagination which Carroll so brilliantly encapsulated, but this interpretation with music by Broadway big hitter Frank Wildhorn certainly gives it a good shot - with a twist.

This is Alice, but not as we know it. She’s now a 40-something downtrodden divorcee living in a steely grey block of flats with daughter Ellie (played with sass by Naomi Morris).

In typical Carroll-style subversion, the adult is the child and the child is the adult. Both need to find their true selves and the answer to that lies, seemingly, down a lift shaft which transports them to Wonderland, a place where they’re encouraged to step through a humorously droll looking glass to find their parallel personas.

Though I expected more of an enchanting entrance into this brilliantly bonkers land, the piece soon gathers pace and the staging transforms from grey to technicolour when we start to meet Alice and our old childhood friends.

Wonderland

Wonderland

The caterpillar (Kayi Ushe) has been given a funk soul makeover and is now a green satin flare-clad lothario who slinks around with dancers as his legs, and the Cheshire Cat (Dominic Owen) is now a dandy with a Noel Fielding-esque swagger.

The rabbit, meanwhile, is given a more avuncular role in the hands of stage stalwart Dave Willetts. It’s all a little rushed as we are introduced to all the wonderfully wacky Wonderland inhabitants, but then this is two full-length novels knocked down and loosely reinterpreted for two hours of theatre.

West End star Kerry Ellis certainly shines as Alice and her vocal performance in power ballads I Am My Own Invention and This is Who I Am are nothing short of spine-tingling. But this modern day Alice, I have to say, isn’t a particularly endearing character, through no fault of Ellis’. The morale of her looking glass tale is one of girl power, but she needs men to tell her this - in the form of love interest Jack (Stephen Webb) and the White Rabbit - which seems a contradiction.

You end up warming more to the Mad Hatter played brilliantly by Natalie McQueen - and making her a woman certainly works. Her narrative, where she turns from a tea-loving eccentric into a demented dictator at the helm of a hat factory, is by far my favourite strand to the theatrical tale, while her love story with the March Hare (played with perfect comic timing by Ben Kerr) is one I found myself caring more about than the central one of Alice and Jack.

Kayi Ushe as the Caterpillar

Kayi Ushe as the Caterpillar

And then there’s Wendi Peters as the deliciously demented Queen of Hearts. Her physical embodiment of this gluttonous despot is divine. She was the most in keeping with Carroll’s characterisation and though her scenes are few, she steals them with every munch of her jam tart. Her anthem Off With Their Heads is also one of the more memorable from the score and she delivers it with regal relish. More of her please!

This is a brand new production. So new this was only the second date on a debut European tour. Hopefully it will find its caterpillar feet.