Wonderland in Wellington at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
Written by Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford (after Lewis Carroll)

Director: Susan Wilson
Musical Director/Arranger: Michael Nicholas Williams
Set Designer: Lucas Neal
Lighting: Marcus McShane
Costumes: Sheila Horton
Musical Staging: Leigh Evans
Technical: Deb McGuire (Lighting) / Paul Lawrence (sound)

Cast – Gavin Rutherford : Dame Marjori
Natasha McAllister: Alice
Sarah Lineham: White Rabbit/Caterpillar
Andrew Paterson: Tweedledum
Susie Berry: Tweedledee/Voice of Cheshire Cat
Jonathan Morgan: The Queen of Hearts
Simon Leary: The Mad Hatter
David Duchovny Dormouse: Himself

Circa Theatre, Wellington
Tuesday, 19th November, 2019

(until 22nd December, then 2-11 January 2020)

This show was, I thought, an absolute knockout on the performance strength of the songs and their associated choreography alone!  Michael Nicholas Williams’ skilled arrangements of no less than thirteen (mostly?) home-grown classics, along with Leigh Evans’ splendid choreography lent musical magic to a scenario whose script I thought suitably action-packed enough, if not with quite the consistent raciness and fluency of other Circa pantos I’ve seen. Still, a talented cast under Susan Wilson’s direction here imbued the song-and-movement action with the kind of energy and seamless flow of engagement we couldn’t help but give ourselves over to – music theatre at its most happily compelling.

For this reason I took away at the end most readily a sense of ensemble created in these pieces, around which everything else revolved – a “whole greater than the sum of parts” feeling, which added to the overall pleasurable “glow” of the experience. Of course, people of my generation, steeped in the Lewis Carroll books and their iconic references (a number of which were quoted verbatim in the dialogue) would be all too ready to succumb to the tried and true attractions and fascinations of the various characters and their antics – and thus it was, here. And even for younger people, the scenario of a “Wonderland” where the unexpected becomes the norm can be accorded parallels with our more-than-usually mixed-up world, so continuing to lend itself as much, if not even more, to the kind of absurdities that appealed to the original author’s fanciful imagination.

Writers Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford cleverly work local and topical references into the presentation via character’s names (here was Dame Marjori Banks Street, talking about ex-husband Kent Terrace, and the “other woman”, Courtenay Place!), and some hinted allusions to certain political leaders and their interaction in the characters of the Queen of Hearts and The Jabberwock! Film-maker Peter Jackson also gets a mention as the alleged uncle of Alice, Dame Marjori fancying her chances of making a valuable “contact” with someone whose connections might further her aspirations as a hitherto undiscovered performing artist (with a potently expressive right hand!).

The show’s scenario revolves around the circumstance in the original story of a famous theft – that of the tarts, made (as in the well-known nursery-rhyme) by the Queen of Hearts, though here, it’s the White Rabbit (rather than the Knave of Hearts) who’s placed under suspicion as the thief, and threatened with execution – naturally, Alice and Dame Marjorie, along with the Rabbit’s Wonderland friend, the Mad Hatter, strive to release the latter from the Queen’s clutches. Their adversaries include not only the Queen’s servants-cum-hit-men Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but the fearsome Jabberwock, whose presence is, until it finally makes an unexpected appearance, powerfully evoked at various stages of the story with a portentous leitmotif accompanied by a sudden darkening of the atmosphere – most effective!

It wouldn’t be a proper Pantomime without participation from the audience, most ostensibly the children who are summonsed onto the stage at one point by Dame Marjori to help thwart the  Queen of Hearts’ vengeful intentions towards the Rabbit. It’s done here with the power of love by the children holding up pictures of the Cheshire Cat’s smiling face and singing along with the Avalanche City song “Love, love, love”, which exercise comes off a treat (complete with mandatory-cum-heartwarming in-situ photograph-snapping!) There were also frequent exhortations  made to us to greet different characters, answer various questions or warn people of danger (to which we readily responded). As well, the Dame used her roving eye to suitable effect on the audience, at one point early in the piece lighting on a certain gentleman, asking him for his name, and then to our recurring amusement throughout the evening keeping him within coo-ee and on the boil!

In his tenth pantomime role, Gavin Rutherford again bestrode the Circa stage like a colossus, holding the audience in the palm of Dame Marjori’s hand as she described her “poor, lonely, widow-woman status”, though playing the “abandoned-wife” card this time round, courtesy of her absent husband Kent Terrace. Her flirtation and would-be liaison with Simon Leary’s wonderful, and hyperactively charismatic Mad Hatter promised much (with musically-framed “can this be he/she?” moments), before failing, at the cusp, to deliver, for reasons best seen rather than explained…..

Compelling, too, was Jonathan Morgan’s prima-donna-ish Queen of Hearts, as wilful and volatile as her divine right permitted her to be, responsive one second to the children’s exhortations of love, and then transforming into Gorgon-like aspect through the influence of the evil Jabberwock. Her song “Tears” in tandem with her cohorts Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Andrew Paterson and Susie Berry respectively) was, like their first-half “Out on the Street”, a highlight of the show, the three going spectacularly through their paces with fabulously-timed teamwork and superbly-concerted voices. And while Sarah Lineham’s character-parts of the White Rabbit and the Caterpillar were relatively low-key, the roles requiring more finely crafted than full-blooded, in-your-face assumptions, she came into her own in the song-and-dance routines as a paid-up-vibrant component of the ensemble.

As, of course, did the equally fine-tuned Alice of Natasha McAllister, whose role throughout was a kind of fulcrum, both as a foil for the outrageous Dame Marjori and a focus for everybody else, as their ostensible “dreamer”, an enabler whose presence was the sounding-board for practically all the other characters, her own beautifully presented in every way, a “constant” whose energy and vocal strength told in the concerted numbers which gave the show its special distinctiveness,

Backdropped by Lucas Neal’s simple but effective set of playing cards and a classic pantomimic “disappearing hole” part of whose charm and intent was its emphasis on “suggestion”, the non-stop action whirled kaleidoscopically around and about the performing-space to visceral effect, enriched by technicians Deb McGuire (lighting) and Paul Lawrence (sound) readily evoking the baleful presence of the Jabberwock. Sheila Horton’s costumings helped bring the characters to life, between dressing Alice classically (a la John Tenniel’s original illustrations) and the Mad Hatter fantastically, the latter complete with glove-puppet Dormouse. Director Susan Wilson enabled these disparate impulses and energies as a convincing and hugely entertaining whole, a show from which one felt like dancing into and through the streets afterwards, celebrating and prolonging its feast of music, movement, and laughter.





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