The Royal Ballet – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Joby Talbot
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Ballet in two acts to choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, based on a scenario by Nicholas Wright, after Lewis Carroll

Alice – Lauren Cuthbertson
Jack / The Knave of Hearts – Federico Bonelli
Lewis Carroll / The White Rabbit – Edward Watson
Mother / The Queen of Hearts – Laura Morera
The Duchess – Philip Mosley
Father / The King of Hearts – Christopher Saunders
Magician / The Mad Hatter – Steven McRae

Artists of The Royal Ballet

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Barry Wordsworth

Designs – Bob Crowley
Lighting design – Natasha Katz
Projection design – John Driscoll & Gemma Carrington

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 17 March, 2012
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Feb/Mar 2011, The Royal Ballet). Photograph: Johan PerssonThe Royal Ballet returns to what it undoubtedly hopes to be another cash-cow in its repertoire: Christopher Wheeldon’s 2011 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (it is already scheduled for revival next season). Not without reason, as seats for this revival are hard to come by, and, on first night, the queue for returns was long indeed. There was much talk about changes that Wheeldon had made, not least in dividing (somewhat arbitrarily as it turned out) the overlong first act into two, thereby making the work into a classic ‘three-parter’ and, oh, cynic that I am for even contemplating it, providing catering with another money-generating interval. There have been changes too to some of the choreography, not least to bring the Knave of Hearts, Alice’s love interest, more to the fore and make him more integral to the narrative. Broadly however, Alice 2012 is Alice 2011 with all its plusses and minuses.

Bob Crowley’s stunning mise en scène continues to astonish, delight and ravish the eye, a Monty Pythonesque take on Carroll’s weird world. Indeed here the audience gasped, gurgled and tittered with delight at every visual coup, as well they might, but often the eye was drawn to the stage picture and not to the dancing, to the effect and not the content. Certainly, everything is thrown at the audience, with remote controlled doors whizzing around, puppets (including the truly wonderful realisation of the Cheshire Cat), confetti raining down from the ceiling, and dancers waltzing in the aisles of the stalls. It is a grand ballet à spectacle, a comfortably satisfying visual feast. But the concerns about the choreography remain – precious little in the first two thirds as Alice rattles through countless episodes from the descent into the rabbit’s hole to the ‘drink me’ and ‘eat me’ sections and on to the animals’ race, the Caterpillar, and the Mad Hatter’s tea party. It is all ultimately no more than a series of divertissements, except whereas in classical ballet those come when the narrative has finished (and therefore in the celebratory last act), here they take its place. Wheeldon falls with the Act Two Flower Waltz, creating messy and poorly decipherable stage patterning and, alas, confirming the impression given by his pedestrian waltz for the company’s current production of The Sleeping Beauty, that a 3-4 tempo brings out far from the best in him.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice & Edward Watson as the White Rabbit (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Feb/Mar 2011, The Royal Ballet). Photograph: Johan PerssonThe ballet contains three sections of wholly successful choreography. The opening Prologue set in Dodgson’s Christ Church garden where all the characters who are metamorphosed into Alice’s Wonderland imaginings is presented in witty fashion – the period charm of Ashton’s Enigma Variations suffused with the zaniness of his A Wedding Bouquet, roles imbued with character-illuminating movement and mime. Wheeldon’s Act Three section for the corps de ballet cards, set to a relentlessly rhythmic number from Talbot and displaying a clarity of movement which the same dancers are not given in the ensuing Knave’s trial scene, is wholly likable. The Croquet Match works best of all, starting with a delightful trio of gardeners desperately painting the flowers red (James Hay, Valentino Zucchetti and Dawid Trzensimiech) and progressing to a genuinely funny flamingo and hedgehog croquet game (the idea of flamingos as 1920s bathing belles complete with shingled pink hair is brilliant). Here, the setting, the narrative and its movement are best combined and the ballet moves up a perceptible notch.

Steven McRae as The Mad Hatter (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Feb/Mar 2011, The Royal Ballet). Photograph: Johan PerssonLauren Cuthbertson is a superb Alice, an airy, confident dancer with a fine gift for comedy and doing a good line in girlish frustration. Federico Bonelli as The Knave is supremely elegant, happy in his now amplified choreography and the securest and most attentive of partners – he and Cuthbertson make for a very well-suited and handsome pairing. Laura Morera had a ball with The Queen of Hearts, revelling in her deranged blood lust and making much of the Rose Adagio spoof of the croquet match simply by underplaying it. Christopher Saunders was hilarious as her bored and exhausted consort. The company engaged in their requisite grotesqueries, Kristen McNally particularly noteworthy as the Duchess’ insane cook.

Joby Talbot’s score is excellent, a successful composition, heavily orchestrated, and wholly engaging. Perhaps there is an absence of the sort of ‘big’ tune which is associated with the greatest ballets, but it is no crime not to be Tchaikovsky and he creates a winning soundscape, introducing recognisable themes and effortlessly creating atmosphere. Barry Wordsworth’s conducting and the Orchestra’s playing are exemplary.

The Royal Ballet has a hit on its hands. Alice is not a great contribution to the performing canon, being light on choreography of real quality, but it represents a ‘good night out’ as used to be reported, perhaps just what is needed in economically straightened times. Admittedly far from high art, it is what it is, although I cannot help feeling that its revival would be best placed at Christmas-time as an alternative to The Nutcracker or Cinderella.

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