Review – The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Zoonation at Royal Opera House

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Magic at Christmas, to me, is having a company I follow worshipfully present an adaptation of a literary work I adore. No, Matthew Bourne is doing the same old same old at Sadler’s Wells (although the Royal Ballet is freshening things up by not doing the Nutcracker this year). No, ZooNation, who had me out of my seat and cheering to Some Like it Hip Hop and laughing and smiling with their Wizard of Oz have decided to tackle Alice in Wonderland. Getting two tickets together was nearly impossible, but the Royal Opera House‘s generous returns policy (and my persistent use of F5) finally paid off and a few days after opening night I was there (for a bizarrely timed 5PM Saturday start – never seen a show at that time before!).

Before I get into the dance, let me talk a little about the overall setting, which starts in the lobby of the Linbury. It’s set up like a tea party is going on, with tea pots on the tables, and there is a Mad Hatter’s picture booth where you can try on different headwear and take a photo. There are also a series of riddles written around the walls (tied into a prize giveaway). It’s all really fun and involving, although I really doubt the piece is entertaining enough for the 6 year olds I saw in the audience – 10 and over would be better. You’ve been warned.

The story, such as it is, is that strange Dr Ernest (Tommy Franzen) has been hired at a rather bizarre madhouse to lead group therapy sessions for an extremely deranged set of people. They aren’t deranged because collectively they represent the characters of Alice in Wonderland; no, they seem each to have their own quirk which needs to be dealt with. These quirk are expressed in a series of solo dances that take their greatest flight with the extremes of the Cheshire Cat (Duwane Taylor), a man who arrives in a straightjacket and, bursting it, is able to turn the external world into a flickering, blue lit chamber of extreme dub. But the highlight of these is the one duet, between Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Rowen Hawkins and Ross Sands), whose high energy, Sumo-esque, belly slamming dance duel just rocked the house. I couldn’t have cared less that these two are so peripheral to the main story; watching them helicopter spin and bounce off of each other, I was leaping out of my chair with excitement – only no I wasn’t, because I was in the Linbury and most of the audience was only able to clap politely, not roar and cheer like I thought we should have been. Still: awesome.

And then it was act two, in which the mentally broken Ernest is taken to a tea party in Wonderland to see if the various people can put him back together again. This involves dancing across the table, getting a few lucky audience members in hats and jackets and right next to the action, flips and spins and overall wildness building to a conclusion that had us all clapping – Ernest rejects the clinicians (who had been hiding between the start and finish as our very talented musicians) and becomes one with Alice’s crew. Only … whoa, there were the rest of the audience, still sitting down politely, completely visible in transverse staging in all of their glued-to-their-seatsness. PEOPLE THIS WAS AWESOME HOW COULD YOU NOT RESPOND BETTER? All I can say is, me, I was thrilled to bits to get to see this great show in such an intimate environment, and I can’t wait for a chance to see it again, preferably at the Peacock and with a crowd of unrestrained people who will give it the roars of enthusiasm it deserves. I loved my trip down the rabbit hole! My only regret is a few of the Royal Ballet dancers didn’t get stuck in while ZooNation is in residence – I think the cross-pollination would have done both side marvels – and taken this show utterly over the top.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, December 13, 2014. It continues through January 3rd. A few tickets keep becoming available so try looking now, you might get lucky!)

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