A mega-musical that’s like watching the Downton cast crammed into a telephone kiosk

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

10 August 2013

9:00 AM


Southwark Playhouse, until 31 August

Alice in Wonderland

St Paul’s Church, until 31 August

Hats off for theatrical recklessness. The producer Danielle Tarento has taken a $10-million Broadway mega-musical and staged it in the 240-seat Southwark Playhouse. Titanic, by Peter Stone and Maury Yeston, opened in 1997 to howls of critical derision that it merrily ignored. The run lasted for two years. The writers take a comprehensive approach. All the passengers, from first class to steerage, are represented. There are smut-smeared boilermen and bustling waiters. Salts of various ranks are shown alongside the designer, the builder, the financiers, the lot. It’s like watching the Downton cast crammed into a telephone kiosk. This method leaves no room for a catchy storyline to appear. Quite deliberately. The Titanic is more than a doomed keel or a journey into oblivion, it’s an emblem of man’s ambition, daring and self-belief. And these are specifically American virtues. The ship that drowned on its way to New York is a tragic icon for all the hulks and rust buckets that got through safely.

The show’s underlying theme is the construction of American power in the 20th century. Noo technology. The noo world. A noo era. These are the constant refrains of the characters. Only a handful of English figures appear. There’s a stuck-up minor aristocrat escaping her snooty parents. There’s a nervy second-in-command to Cap’n Smith. And there’s a geeky young telegraph operator who may be a closeted proto-gay. And there’s the villain of the piece, J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line. He’s drawn as a pushy coward who bullies Cap’n Smith into cranking the engines up to ramming speed and then, when the tub bashes into the berg, stows away in a lifeboat and survives. (Today he’d be claiming for whiplash injuries as well.) Simon Green gives Ismay’s uppity smarm a subtle dose of sympathy. Great stuff. And there’s good work from an excellent young performer, James Hume, as an effusive bar steward.

The show has scant time for lamentation over the corpses. The Titanic may have been launched as ‘the world’s largest-moving object’ but within three days it was the world’s fastest-sinking object. This is treated as little more than a hiccup. For the closing number, the cast gather on stage and raise their glittering eyes to heaven while belting out the strange anthem ‘Sail on! Sail on!’ Yet at this point the Titanic is dropping to the ocean floor and 1,500 hypothermic passengers are seizing up in the freezing brine. Some may find the script clunky and a tad earnest. But the production is a pitch-perfect rendering of the authors’ vision. At the curtain call, the entire audience leapt to its feet — often a signal that a show is bound for larger premises.

Alice in Wonderland is being staged in the dank burial ground of St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden. The script is an encyclopaedic mash-up of both the Alice tales with musical add-ons. The songs are a catchy fusion of just about everything. Cod-punk and make-believe folk ditties mingle with what sounded like nifty rip-offs of Bach and Bacharach. All very engaging. The wardrobe is Edward VII on acid: psychedelic tailcoats, mood-altering cravats, drainpipe trousers that open the doors of perception. There are apartments overlooking the church and an irate neighbour cranked up his TV volume so we had Top Gear, from an upper window, doing its best to outblast Alice. Not quite the Wonderland spirit. The audience was a mixture of kids, Japanese, Yanks and Brits, plus a few bushy wrecks clutching super-strength cider who seemed to be long-term residents of the bone-yard. They liked it, I think. They didn’t leave early, at least. No option perhaps.

Alice is played by Laura Wickham with a dreamy sexless beauty. A perfect embodiment of the original. And she has a lovely singing voice. Supporting her is a team of male actors who, rather weirdly, all have the same upper-body shape: skinny torso, long skull, small head, jutty chin. It’s hard to say if they could act as they were so committed to overacting. But the kids in the crowd seemed to enjoy their chainsaw vocals and care-in-the community gambollings. (Worst case of overkill: the Queen of Hearts performed by a needy hooligan in a beard who may have a big future playing Charles Manson.)

In the closing section, the show moved inside the church where the trial scene (‘sentence first, verdict afterwards!’) was shrilly overdone with scruffy props and ear-tormenting shrieks. But the final moments, where Alice vanishes through golden shafts of illuminated mist, were magical and rather moving. At 150 minutes, the show will test the sleep-resistance of the under-fives. And be prepared for audience participation (i.e., harassment). As summer is here, dress for the beach and the rainforest. And the north pole.

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