The last shows of the Connections Festival are both drawn from stories we know by heart: Hamlet, and in this show: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. This story has been told by traditionally by Disney, twisted by Tim Burton and has now fallen into the capable hands of musical theatre duo Duncan Sheik and Steve Sater.
Like their Tony Award-winning, Olivier Award-winning musical Spring Awakening, Sheik and Sater have used this story to illustrate the transition from childhood to adulthood. Alice By Heart opens in a war bunker, where Alice (Laurie Field) reads Alice in Wonderland to her dying friend Alfred (George Page-Bailey) so they can escape from the horrors of war into their imagination. But in the vein of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, the characters come to life and say that Alice has grown out of Wonderland, and are infuriated by her claim that they are characters of her imagination, without individual will power. This plotline has all the kooky charm of the original tale, but the inventive approach allows the story to resonate within the hearts of mature audiences, travelling towards a heart-wrenching ending where Alice must face reality.
Flying High Theatre Company is very lucky to be premiering the work of Sheik and Sater. Before the curtains rises the anticipation is high. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s Alice in Wonderland taken to new heights. But it shows that it’s still in development, and although I’m impressed by the confidence and acting of this young company, I’m less impressed by the quality of the vocals. The majority of songs are chorus numbers and these are strong, but often solo lines fall flat. Field’s alto range is warmer than her head voice, and in this mature version, the sweetness of Alice is missed. It is a somewhat sexed-up production, and this adds layers to Alice’s journey from teenager to adult, but there needs to be something which induces me to care about this development.
Together with Page-Bailey’s Alfred/White Rabbit, a touching love story emerges that won’t fail to break your heart. Their relationship is tender, and Page-Bailey is a tremendous actor. Arguably the tale’s best loved character of the Mad Hatter is better played than sung by Tom Cartledge, a demanding role for which his twitchy physicality and panicked tone echoes the shell-shocked soldier he plays in the opening. Simialrly, Sophie Hatton’s Cheshire Cat is a brilliantly physicalised character. However there are two stars in this show: Annabelle Terry as the Queen of Hearts and Aaron Bletcher as the Duchess. Bletcher is hilarious and his speeches are the best in the show, translating the real absurdity of the tale. Terry is a triple threat of professional standard. As the Queen she commands the stage, and her expressions draw your attention wherever she is onstage, in whatever role. As an ensemble, Flying High Theatre Company is all individual characters, who embrace this musical with spirit and joy. Above all the dancing showcases it at its best; Carrie Bird’s choreography has impact and symmetry, and the cast act intensely through their faces and bodies.
With very little set, the makeshift costumes are enough to transport us into Alice’s colourful world, but with shows such as Shrek around, this show will benefit incredibly if it reaches the West End or Broadway and can blow a tonne on the visual images which dominate such a story. Of course the music is full of Sater’s rocky tunes which cannot help but get stuck in your head. But in the form they’re currently in, it’s impossible to ignore that they’re very repetitive.
Sheik and Sater said they learnt a lot from watching this production and hopefully will continue to develop it into what will doubtless be another hit for them. And performing at the National in this exciting new musical was a learning experience for Flying High Theatre Company, a fearless unit with shining personalities. If the number of audience members giving a standing ovation is anything to go by, I predict great things for them.