Reviews: Wonderland & Fisk (both touring)

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

Wonderland

Seen at Playhouse, Edinburgh

Touring until August 19

 

Fisk

Seen at MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling

Touring until February 28

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

wonderland
Kerry Ellis as Alice in the musical Wonderland

Wonderland, the major musical based upon Lewis Carroll’s much-loved tales Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking Glass, recently had its British premiere at Edinburgh’s Playhouse theatre ahead of a lengthy UK tour. Its American creator (Frank Wildhorn) is fortunate that Carroll is no longer with us. If he was, I suspect he would sue.

In this UK adaptation of Wildhorn’s show, Alice is, not a young girl in a garden in Victorian England, but a 40-year-old woman living in a dodgy tower block in contemporary Britain. Her life collapsing around her ears, she descends into Wonderland, not via a rabbit hole, but in the hitherto broken elevator that used to serve her high-rise building.

Indeed, Alice’s journey underground is not in pursuit of her own curiosity, but that of her teenage daughter, Ellie, who has already taken the lift down with the White Rabbit. Oh, and Alice’s quest to find Ellie isn’t conducted alone, she has Jack, her besotted neighbour, in tow.

As narrative reinventions go, this is jaw-droppingly bad stuff. In 30 years of serious theatre going, I have seen some ludicrously misconceived productions (Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet set in outer space, Lorca’s The House Of Bernarda Alba relocated to the garish home of a contemporary Glaswegian gangster), but few have been quite as disastrous as this.

The basis for such mangling of Carroll’s tales is Alice’s need to discover that the estranged husband she has pining for was actually an emotionally abusive despot. This might have more credibility as a work of 21st-century feminism if the Alice we meet at the beginning wasn’t represented reductively as a woman willingly accepting her misogynistic husband’s demands that she give up teaching and writing.

If the characterisation of Alice is two-dimensional (at best), the contemporary setting has a catastrophic impact on the stage and costume designs. The delightful imagery of John Tenniel’s illustrations for the Alice books is replaced with utterly awful collisions of contemporary dress with costume elements that point towards characters (think a White Rabbit with prodigious ears, but wearing a pair of sneakers, or a Caterpillar in a shiny, green suit who looks like an over-confident nightclub owner from the 1980s).

Wonderland is a musical almost entirely without redeeming features. The songs are unmemorable, the sentiment is saccharine (even by the sugary standards of the stage musical), and the narrative and design concepts rip the magic from Carroll’s stories as thoroughly as a dog extracting the marrow from a bone.

If there is a glimmer of hope in this artistic black hole it is in the talents of certain members of the cast, not least Kayi Ushe (the Caterpillar) and Kerry Ellis (guest starring as Alice in Edinburgh, among other venues on the tour). One has to admire Ellis’s capacity to give an energetic, powerfully sung performance despite the glaring dreadfulness of the show.

Let’s hope, for the sake of Scottish audiences, that Rachael Wooding is as impressive when she takes up the role for the performances in Aberdeen and Glasgow in May and July, respectively.

From a brash, big stage flop of a musical to an intimate, emotive work of visual theatre. Fisk, created by Scottish company Tortoise In A Nutshell, in co-production with Teater Katapult of Aarhus, Denmark, is a subtle and affecting portrait of a man on the brink of committing suicide.

Devised and performed by Alex Bird and Arran Howie, the piece is built around the metaphor of a man lost at sea. The sense of disconnectedness and despair of the potential suicide is evoked beautifully by the character’s floating along in designer Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s ingenious and fragile paper boat.

Bird’s performance as the man is deeply touching. To his profound sense of isolation he adds physical performance that evokes his character’s extreme frustration at his inability to function in what seem like straightforward social and practical tasks.

Into this world of sometimes chaotic, sometimes tranquil loneliness comes a fish (played by Howie). A very large, very human, female fish, but a fish nonetheless.

Her enthusiastic friendship is not requested by the man. However, although her companionship is accompanied by encouragements shouted through a megaphone and a loud blast of Club Tropicana by Wham, it helps to reconnect the man, gradually, with himself as a social being.

In truth, one does wonder if the contrast between contemplation of suicide and affirmation of life could have been achieved more delicately. However, director Ross MacKay and his team (particularly movement director Darren Brownlie and dramaturg Kirstine Christensen) are to be commended on the sensitivity and thoughtfulness with which they approach such an important and difficult subject.

In the end composer Jim Harbourne’s gentle music and Simon Wilkinson’s appropriately subdued lighting design accompany a simple, quiet image of human connection. A work which could so easily have become trite or cliched concludes with a moment of realistic compassion.

For those, such as myself, who have watched a loved one suffer from the “black dog” of depression or, even, be pulled down into suicide by their emotional and psychological demons, Fisk offers some humane, measured hope. One can only imagine its impact upon those who are actually struggling with depression.

For Wonderland tour details, visit: wonderlandthemusical.com

For Fisk tour dates, visit: tortoiseinanutshell.com

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 5, 2017

© Mark Brown

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