Review: Wonderland (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until June 3, and touring)

John Roberts (Wendi Peters as the Queen of Hearts and Dave Willetts as the White Rabbit)

John Roberts (Wendi Peters as the Queen of Hearts and Dave Willetts as the White Rabbit)

Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. With the musical Wonderland now on a UK tour it is tempting to add a seventh: how can such a poorly written story based on the popular and abiding characters created by Lewis Carroll be finding audiences giving standing ovations at every performance?

Impossible to believe it may be when you are forced to sit through Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy’s ridiculous plot (adapted for the UK by Robert Hudson), that even loses interest in itself well before the end, leaving most of the storylines unresolved and containing such a batch of thoroughly unlikeable characters. However, some stellar performances and a very pleasant collection of musical numbers surely explain everything and certainly make this worth a look.

It is puzzling why Frank Wildhorn musicals have never quite found a target in the UK – shows such as Jekyll and Hyde, Victor/Victoria and Bonnie and Clyde have terrific and memorable songs. With Wonderland he is joined by lyricist Jack Murphy, and again there are a fistful of showstoppers, though many are so loud you cannot make out the lyrics – a pity when they are being used to drive the action forward.

The show is let down so badly by its book it is a wonder nobody has ever demanded a rewrite. In this version of Carroll’s surreal and magical tale, Alice is an obnoxious 40-year-old mum whose husband left her five years ago, and who loses her job and her car on the same day, while many of the characters from Wonderland (and indeed Through the Looking Glass) are beyond recognition.

It’s a big show that is rather too large for Brighton’s small stage, and there are many occasions when the company seem to be tripping over each other. Andrew Riley’s set is eye-catching though there are times when you can see stagehands holding the scenery, which tends to distract from the magic.

Wonderland certainly boasts some knockout performances: Kerry Ellis – one of the queens of the musical stage – packs a singing punch as Alice, bringing the house down in such numbers as Once More I Can See and a powerful duet with the Mad Hatter, This Is Who I Am. Natalie McQueen’s Mad Hatter is a force to be reckoned with (one of the odd plots involves her going through the looking glass to become the villain of the piece, determined to overthrow the Queen) yet there is little reason for the Hatter to be female other than for the purposes of a clichéd feminine power struggle.

Wendi Peters is woefully underused as the jam tart-loving Queen of Hearts, having two mighty musical numbers and little else besides. It is a little hard to understand why she is a feared tyrant, as her constant shrieks of “Off with their heads” lead only to characters from the real world having to stay in Wonderland (the inhabitants are all people who wanted to escape their humdrum lives anyway) and a repeat punishment is only a slap on the wrist.

The great Dave Willetts is also underused as the White (Welsh) Rabbit , though he makes the most of the sweet I Am My Own Invention, while Stephen Webb is a joy as Alice’s bashful neighbour, who in Wonderland becomes a confident hero – and gets to sing a couple of boyband style numbers, including One Knight, which could have been plucked from a Eurovision Song Contest.

Kayi Ushe is a particularly enjoyable laid-back Caterpillar (one of the few characters who comes close to their literary counterpart), while Naomi Morris as Alice’s daughter Ellie changes annoyingly from being a spirited and supportive young girl in the real world to an uninteresting stroppy teenager with attitude problems once through the looking glass.

Director Lotte Wakeham could have made more of what is no more than a brash American musical that fails to understand its source, though admittedly may have felt constricted by the lazy writing. It is certainly true that the musical numbers are staged extremely well and Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography is sharp and energetic (though she must regret the wasted tap dance number at the start of Act Two).

Wonderland is an odd show that gets curiouser and curiouser, containing some impressive performances, yet needing a boot up the Humpty Dumpties in the story department. It deserves more than being relegated to the box of musical curiosities after this tour, from which the odd track will be played on a Sunday show tunes radio programme nostalgia slot in 15 years’ time.