As has become annual tradition, Sherman Theatre closes out the year with a big family show. There’s something a little bit different about Alice in Wonderland, though. This new musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic is more than just a festive family treat. It’s a celebration of some of Wales’ brightest and best talent; it’s a culmination of what is arguably Sherman Theatre’s biggest and most important year; and it’s the last hurrah of another fair-haired and misunderstood protagonist.
There’s no denying that the show is definitely a crowd-pleaser. From the performances on stage to the team behind the curtain everyone has worked tirelessly to bring this grand production to life, and that shows from the moment you enter the auditorium. Family productions at the Sherman have always been well-designed, but Hayley Grindle’s checkerboard design takes it a whole new level. Mobile, deliberately disproportionate and full of secret doors, it really does feel like the audience has fallen down the rabbit hole with Alice. The production itself doesn’t really get going immediately, though. Rachel O’Riordan directs it as a farce but the energy, unfortunately, isn’t quite there. Despite moments of enjoyment, the first half drags at times. Those moments of enjoyment are beautiful though – when Alice grows too big, for instance, or when the set moves for the very first time. Lucy Rivers’ foot-tapping compositions keep the show ticking along and help prevent that slow start feel any slower. It all changes, however, when The Duchess arrives.
There are few things British families love more than a Panto Dame, and Keiron Self is the closest they get to one here. The actor, on sublime form, bolsters the energy in less than five minutes. Everyone else suddenly gets an extra spring in their step and from then on, post-interval, the show is magnificent. All the beloved characters – and their respective actors – seize on their moments to shine, and it’s a joy to watch. With the energy now where it needs to be the farcical direction pays off and, especially for children, it’s a thrilling experience. O’Riordan’s directorial decisions also bring the work of Nick Allsop to the fore. Alice in Wonderland is full of intricately moving parts, a lot of them in full view of the audience, and it’s a testament to his production team that (at least on the surface) it all moves along seamlessly. Special mention also needs to go to Elian West, who is Alice. A difficult character to play anyway, West has the added challenge of playing it completely straight, with no edge or spin on the portrayal. She rises to that challenge expertly, delivering a performance which is as resonant with the adults as it is with the children. Her final song, where she finally feels accepted by the world for who she is, is genuinely moving.
Which brings me on to that other fair-haired and misunderstood protagonist. Alice in Wonderland is yet another example of what an excellent director Rachel O’Riordan is, and one more reason why she will be deeply missed. There is no getting away from the fact, however, that she also fell down a rabbit hole when she moved to Wales. Much like Alice, I personally believe that O’Riordan was never really accepted by the country she decided to call home. And that’s a shame. Lewis Carroll’s book is about a journey home against all odds and, in this version by Mike Kenny, the culmination of that journey is knowing you’ve triumphed over adversity. Alice did it and, in Wales, Rachel O’Riordan did it. It’s why that final song is so moving, and its another reason why Alice in Wonderland is one of the highlights of 2018.