“Mum, what’s a cassette?”
In four words, my eight-year-old encapsulated the central problem with this ambitious but ultimately problematic new family show at Liverpool’s Playhouse Theatre. Stockroom’s retelling of Alice in Wonderland looks fantastic, and the cast are engaging actors and talented singers. It’s just that the central concept doesn’t quite work for its audience, and the plot – to the extent that there is one – makes very little sense.
Here, Alice (Liverpudlian Paislie Reid) is a 15-year-old from Toxteth. While attempting to repair her late dad’s stereo (what’s a stereo?), in which a much-loved cassette is stuck (what’s a cassette?), she is sucked into a magical world inside the defunct appliance where she has to rescue the broken buttons and save Wonderland from the Queen of Charts. If that sounds baffling to you, imagine having no reference point as to how a cassette worked (the tape unravelling is a plot point), that you might press ‘record’ to store music on it, then hit eject, and – the horror! – might not be able to access the same music in a thousand different ways if that didn’t work. You might as well make a kids’ show about a typewriter or a landline.
For the annual panto at the Playhouse’s sister theatre, the Everyman, which is produced by the same team and in which Reid starred in style just months ago, the complete absence of any logical plot is inconsequential, if not an active bonus. Yet despite other parallels with the panto – actors doubling up as on-stage musicians, likeable comedy characters – without Christmas cheer and a rock ‘n’ roll singalong to carry the production along, it felt a little frustrating. Unlike the panto, the music in this show is all original, and some of Vickki Stone’s tunes are catchy enough. You’re Not Invited, sung by Olivier-award winner Leanne Jones as Queen of Charts, was a highlight, and my kids went home singing Bezzie Bezzie Bez, a line from ‘Bez’ the Cheshire Cat’s (Tomi Ogbaro) self-referential comedy number.
A second half number about empathy, during which Alice engaged in a Rocky-style training montage (another missed reference for the kids), was by contrast all a little like a school’s wellbeing-through-drama workshop, and in a couple of places the levels were not quite right on various performers’ microphones; technical teething problems that will be ironed out no doubt.
Nevertheless, there are moments of real theatrical joy in this production. We loved the fantastically-realised Jabberwock, despite having no idea what he was doing there, and both Alice and her fictional little brother, played by Zweyla Mitchell dos Santos, were warm-hearted and endearing. Having jettisoned most of Lewis Carroll’s plot in favour of a complicated concept and an attempt to be at once poignant and surreal, however, this musical show is something short of a smash hit.
Alice in Wonderland is at the Liverpool Playhouse until July 22, 2023. For more information, click here.