Theatre review - Wonderland, The Palace Theatre Manchester

PUBLISHED: 12:11 26 April 2017 | UPDATED: 13:23 26 April 2017

Wonderland: Caterpillar (Kaye Ushe)

Wonderland: Caterpillar (Kaye Ushe)

Archant

Wonderland launched onto the stage at Manchester’s Palace Theatre last night and what fun it was. Kate Houghton writes.

Wonderland: Wendi Peters as The Queen of Hearts rules the stage
Photo: John Roberts Wonderland: Wendi Peters as The Queen of Hearts rules the stage Photo: John Roberts

Just over 150 years ago Lewis Carroll wrote a tale that has settled into the public consciousness and found a permanent place in our hearts. The latest re-working of this ageless story is Wonderland, a full-on West End style musical, packed with huge song and dance numbers, populated by performers packed with talent and supported by a set that delivers everything it needs to.

In this new version of Carroll’s beloved tale, Alice - played by West End star Kerry Ellis - is a single mum, living in a tower block with a pre-teen daughter and utterly fed up of her life. We meet her on her 40th birthday, when she not only receives a letter from her ex-husband advising her of his plan to re-marry, but loses her job because her car has been stolen. Oblivious to the adoration of meek and unassuming neighbour Jack, she declares that she doesn’t want to live in the real world.

Wonderland: Jack ( Stephen Webb) charms Alice (Kerry Ellis) in his White Knight persona Wonderland: Jack ( Stephen Webb) charms Alice (Kerry Ellis) in his White Knight persona

Cue rabbit.

The appearance of a white rabbit in Alice’s sitting room send her and her daughter Ellie into a spin, chasing it into the elevator (hotly followed by previously named neighbour, determined to protect his lady love) they descend to Wonderland and into the first big ensemble song and dance, which is powerfully done, if a little hard to follow!

Wonderland Wonderland

We meet all the character we know and love: the sleepy Dormouse, the Cheshire Cat, Caterpillar, March Hare and Mad Hatter – and of course the vicious Queen of Hearts. Each one has their own big song, and each song is brilliantly delivered with serious oomph.

The crux of the story is that Alice has to decide whether she wants to retreat into a land of make-believe on a permanent basis, or make change. Does she sit passively and wait for rescue, or does she go out there and kick ass till she achieves her dream. This is all rather laboured – lots of reiteration of ‘we must keep going forward’ and angst-filled demands that she get her act together by her daughter, who is really the most together person on stage. Until she steps through the Looking Glass that is.

In this show the Looking Glass spits those who cross its borders back as the opposite character to how they went through. Our wimpy hero Jack comes back as the bold and brave White Knight, the lead singer of a 90’s boy band, leading to one of the most entertaining numbers in the show, One Knight. With his backing crew, he dazzles Alice and delights the audience. I loved the moment when he slid his microphone into his belt, mimicking the sword more usually carried by our make-believe heroes.

Ellie (played by young and talented Naomie Morris) steps through the Glass and returns as Stroppy Teenager. It’s a hilarious moment for mums of teen daughters; the eye-roll, the condescension, the disdain and the utter panic when it looks like mum might do something embarrassing – perfectly delivered. Alice refuses to step through. Oh, we can see where this is going.

While there are plenty of big characters in this show, two really stand out – and they’re not the leads. The Mad Hatter, played by Natalie McQueen, is fabulous. She reminds me keenly of Queen Elizabeth I from Blackadder II. Fabulously bonkers, her opening scene with Ellie is hilarious and I could have watched a lot more of that.

The other fabulous character I could have seen a lot more of is The Queen of Hearts, played brilliantly by ex-Corrie actress Wendi Peters. Almost pantomime in her delivery, she rules the stage the moment she steps on it and when she belts out her songs, wow. Her rendition of Off With Their Heads is absolutely brilliant and I shall never eat a jam tart again without my own private tribute to the tyrant of Wonderland. She’s barely on stage more than twice however, which is a shame, I think.

An audience has certain expectations of a musical framed around the stories of Alice in Wonderland and these are always going to be high. And they are met.

What we want is huge songs, some big dance numbers, a story that follows plausible lines (the only part that isn’t is when Alice refuses to go through the Looking Glass even when it’s clear it’s a must-do to rescue her daughter; this part clearly wasn’t written by a mother) and a great big happy ending. All these elements are delivered with energy, style and tremendous vocal talent.

This isn’t the best musical I have ever seen, but it’s definitely in the top half of my list. If you’re looking for a good night out, when you leave with a smile and a bounce in your step, this delivers.

Wonderland plays at The Palace Theatre Manchester until 29 April 2017. www.atgtickets.com/shows/wonderland/palace-theatre-manchester

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