Alice in Wonderland

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Opera Holland Park, until 01 August 2015 (tickets) or catch it at the Wilderness Festival

“Curiouser and Curiouser” Civilian Theatre thought to himself as he entered Holland Park. He was lost in the apparent fact that it was supposed to be British summertime and yet here he was and the sun was out and there had been no chance to use his umbrella at all. Disappearing into the machinations of such an absurd situation, Civilian Theatre soon found himself back where he had begun and had entirely forgotten the wise advice to “begin at the beginning…and go on till you come to the end; then stop”

Pulling himself back together (how silly, he thought to himself, how do you pull yourself together when you can never be apart, because, or unless, you are a part of yourself) he hurried on. “Oh dear, oh dear, I shall be too late” he began to panic, but luckily at that moment he ran straight into a café. It was such a hot day that purchasing a refreshing a little drink in a tall bottle (or was it a tall drink in a little bottle, oh my, everything was getting into quite a muddle) seem an entirely reasonable proposition.

“DRINK ME” the bottle screamed as he headed on towards his destination. And if you are the sort of person who trifles with minor details (or is a Major in detailed trifles) then you may be interested to head to the Yucca Lawn, nestled behind the big house. If you find yourself reaching the chess set from the north then turn around, or, of course, turn around two times if you reach it from the south.

Well what a strange effect this bottle has, thought Civilian Theatre, as he was handed a square cushion for his round behind. Of average height and average rotundness, he soon discovered that he must have gained gargantuan proportions because he appeared to tower over ranks of assembled small people. Some of whom seemed to be under the control of equally oversized people. Closer examination revealed them to be children, lots and lots of children. Of all shapes and sizes. But few larger than medium. And some probably only medium-rare.

Studying the programme, he realised this was an opera. But for children? “Well, I never heard it before, but it sounds uncommon nonsense”. This surely must be a thing to see. And too hear. But what is this setting? Grimthorpe? Well it doesn’t seem much like a riverbank too me. Oh modernity, oh concrete stereotype, what more could want us to leave for a fantastical land. Civilian Theatre, as usual stuffed full of gummy bears and cynicism, suspected that for the well-heeled citizens of Holland Park, the idea of Grimthorpe was just as fantastical as Wonderland.

The music begins and it is formless, shifting like Saharan sands. This may be billed an opera but it is more than that. We cross Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to encounter a pastiche of a spiritual, a ballad falls out of Walt Disney’s back pocket and is carried gleefully until it encounters a gypsy number and melts away into the woodland floor. And Sondheim. Everywhere my ears look they hear the spirit of Sondheim peering into them.

Everyone loves a clever rhyme. Sometimes we do it all the time. Other times we don’t.

The occasional clunky line notwithstanding, the libretto is a marvel. It is best, Civilian Theatre remarked, never to underestimate other people. Particularly when they are attempting that notorious circus skill: the pastiche. An act that has claimed no lives, but many reputations.

As a rule the songs are a delight. It is a production that recognises it is playing to children, not to adults who have taken their children along because childcare in London is more expensive than going to the opera. Unlike much opera, great care is taken by the performers to annunciate the words. Clarity and purpose. Alice can be a very proper child. She instils the proper discipline in her performance and receives nothing less from the rest of the ensemble. As a result the children seem to be engaged in what is happening in front of them (look at them, darling, they are listening, really listening to opera, we have raised them so well).

Two standout performances come from the Duchess and her ‘H Song’. Hair-raising, hysterical, humorous, & h’always harmonious. And also the Caterpillar; his arrival changes the tempo, he slows it right so that to listen is to wade through treacle. Wonderland Blues is a gelatinous treat of a song, all slow bluesy-funk that could have been dredged up from the bottom of the Mississippi delta. He later returns to lead the ensemble in another highlight; a mock-spiritual number to lament their time in prison being forced to bake tarts for the Queen. Again the audience are wreathed in the fog of pastiche, a clever moment for the adults but still a well-made song clearly aimed at the children.

There is always a risk that the words will float away on the breeze, and at times, when heads twisted this way and that, lines began to disappear. Civilian Theatre pondered briefly about whether they could have used heavier words. But then, he determined, what can you rhyme with lead? Dead? Not very family friendly. Mead? Well that just makes things more confusing. And really, those missing lines, they didn’t seem to stop people from following what was going on.

“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself. Because I am not myself, you see?”  

So should you go? Well, Civilian Theatre said, today I didn’t go and would say you should go. But it was yesterday I went not today. Would I say you should, or should I say you could? “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then” which settles it, Civilian Theatre thought, firmly to himself, if I was a different person then, then it stands to reason I am a different person now. Which can only mean that what I say today is different to what I didn’t say yesterday, and even if I say the same thing today as I said yesterday, it must be that I am actually saying something different.

Ask your children if they can believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Then go. But give them breakfast first.

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