Review: Alice's Adventures Under Ground, Royal Opera House

As the next stage in their commitment to programming theatre for family audiences, the Royal Opera House presents Gerald Barry’s opera Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Prior to the curtain up, the auditorium is filled with the excitement of children wanting to taste ‘wonderland’ and adults hoping to get lost ‘down the rabbit hole’. It is disappointing to hear the grumbles of some of the more traditional opera theatre-goers voicing their distaste at having to sit next to children, even going as far as to say, “they shouldn’t be here.” It is first worth congratulating, then, their achievement in making opera more inclusive to the younger generations. We would have lost some magic had their laughter not been here.

Director and designer Antony McDonald and conductor Thomas Adès have collaborated to create a journey that takes the audience though Lewis Carroll’s two storybooks, allowing access to his extraordinary mind, while expanding the audience’s own imagination. 

Alice’s Adventures Underground is wonderfully framed (literally having one) and reminding us that we are the audience looking into this melodramatic world, which in turn creates visuals that are begging to explode and expand. A set that could feel restricted has instead nostalgically been constructed to resemble a pop-up style story book, opening a fantasy world of characters from start to finish. Amongst the cardboard cut-out soldiers, flower heads and a royal appearance from Queen Victoria herself, we are spoilt for wonderment as we meet what feels like a new character every minute. As we travel briskly though the pages of scenes with them, our minds work overtime trying to keep up with the many languages, invented words, mathematical problems, rhymes and the very odd questions asked to us, we begin to feel like we are riding full speed on the ‘It’s A Small World’ ride at Disneyland, but with more interesting chaos.

The achievement created in this collaboration between McDonald and Adès is cheerfully absurd, amplified by the continuing shifts of sounds created from Barry’s orchestral writing. Alice, played by Jennifer France, reaches some incredibly high soprano notes. We hear a melancholy performance of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ sung beautifully by Humpty Dumpty played by Alan Ewing, and Nicky Spence almost steals the show with his high energetic vocal stamina and versatile charming performances as The White Rabbit, The Mad Hatter and Tweedledum, to name a few. 

We speed through this short fifty-minute piece, exhilarated by an array of musical blends of brass and woodwind, until we suddenly meet the final scenes that come at us with roaring wind machines, which halt to an eerie silence with quite the sudden climax, reminding me of a quote from the story: ‘“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”’ Despite feeling like I have no idea at times what is going on, the confused madness doesn’t leave me feeling cheated, but rather gifted with a gentle reminder that life is an adventure, and often will pass by too quickly.

Whether life exists in the Victorian age or within the 21st century, the child in us will always be there wanting an exhilarating adventure and Alice’s Adventures Under Ground will certainly take you on a trip worth visiting, because, let’s face it, life is just too short not to.

Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is playing the Royal Opera House until 9 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Royal Opera House website.