Imaginative, infectious and Carnivalesque hip-hop show – let down only by a over-simplistic conclusion. With more thought paid to the final 10 mins, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party would tick all my boxes…
Hip-hop company ZooNation’s Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, first staged in the ROH’s studio in 2014 and now reworked for the Roundhouse’s stunning main space, is imaginative, infectious and consistently electrifying. The final ten minutes don’t seem entirely thought through; unfortunate because the cast (and bands’) sheer energy made me want to leave LOVING it, and I couldn’t quite. But I’ll get there later.
The re-imagining of Lewis Carroll’s classic may sound naff on paper, but in reality, it really works. In this world, Alice, Hatter, the White Rabbit, Queen of Hearts and friends believe they live in Wonderland – but the reality is less colourful. They’re imprisoned in a Gothic asylum (St Trinians meets Wes Anderson), and suffer from a variety of familiar mental illnesses. The White Rabbit’s tardiness relates to obsessive compulsive disorder, causing him to quadruple-check every lock before he leaves the house. Alice has been told to change her body so much (‘eat this’, ‘drink that’) that it’s led to an eating disorder. We’re told by the charismatic narrator (an accomplished spoken word performer) that she’s eating so little that she’s slowly ‘disappearing’; paired with a lyrical dance sequence, it’s actually very sobering. The Queen’s need for anger management therapy turns out to be routed in childhood domestic abuse, whilst mercury infiltrating his organs after years in the hat-making industry is slowly turning the Hatter ‘barmy’.
You may read that and roll your eyes slightly, but when brought to life in this context, it’s clever (especially with so many kids in the audience, a great conversation starter about mental health) and an idea you kick yourself for not thinking of first. The first half, dedicated to exposition of each character’s condition through predominantly solo dance sequences, is handled sensitively and punctuated by beautifully written spoken word sections. The Queen’s tango, a personification of her angry temperament, is a highlight – as is a superb contemporary dance ode to eternal discontentment caused by obsessive compulsive disorder.
The structure of this first act is a bit linear/uninspired (they could have done with something to break the predictable rhythm of character introduction followed by character introduction), but the choreography and solo performances of each section are so dynamic and varied – some commercial hip-hop style, others more lyrical, a couple have reggae and even disco vibes – that I didn’t mind too much.
The characters escape to their ‘Wonderlands’ in the second half, and the show transitions into, pretty much, ‘non-stop party’ mode. It’s thrilling, and impossible to not sit there beaming. The stamina of the always-on cast is impressive; there’s no wings to catch their breath back in here. Standout performances from the White Rabbit (as adept a tumbler as he is a dancer) and an impossibly precise Tweedledee blew my socks off. The Prince tribute, involving a puppet dormouse who may be sitting inside a teapot but has definitely taken something stronger, is unexpected and genuinely very funny.
The conclusion surprised me though, and is the reason I can’t absolutely recommend it. So much effort is gone to in act 1 to sensitively explore the symptoms and possible causes of the character’s conditions, and you expect the sensitivity to continue. Unfortunately not. These efforts are suddenly squashed by an oversimplified ending: a message that’s no more complex than ‘there’s no such thing as a normal person, let’s celebrate difference’. This’d be fine, albeit bubblegum sweet, if the characters had been locked up due to their religious beliefs, nationalities, sexualities, gender identities, etc. making them outsiders of the world they inhabit.
But it’s not like that here – we can’t forget the majority of these characters are seriously unwell. It’s not ok, surely, to just shrug off Alice’s inability to eat anything with ‘hey she’s different, let’s accept her for who she is and dance some more’. Sorry but she still needs help? Probably a different type of intervention to the one the antagonist doctors in the asylum are offering her, but she needs some kind of treatment or she might die. The production seems to leave facts like this behind, and, considering the epic set-up, the lack of substance here is uncomfortable.
Am I taking everything a bit too seriously? Yes and no. Granted, it’s tricky to end any show about mental health without people accusing it of being, at best, over-simple or, worse, offensive. I also appreciate the ultimate intention here is a feel-good-post-Christmas-kids-dance-show that isn’t to be taken too seriously. But it doesn’t seem too radical to me to end with an uncontentious message similar to Kimmings’ cancer musical: merely talking about mental illness openly, not allowing it to be a taboo, acknowledging it can and likely will affect all of us, and making sure we’re there for each other when it does is the first step towards fighting it.
I don’t think it’d be preposterous for example for Tweedledum to have a sudden anxiety attack during the closing feel-good dance number, causing the choreography to ‘fall apart’. A plot device like this would acknowledge the characters still have some way to go with their mental illnesses, and know they do, but will be there for each other in times of need and won’t feel alone. Probably all it needed; not a radical re-writing but a nod to the fact everything isn’t quite awesome. Without it, it’s irreverent, and doesn’t quite sit OK with me.
One more thing. The audience participation was inevitable, and eventually fun(ish), but it needed more thought. After being dragged up, the poor girls found themselves sitting like lemons at the tea party for a good 10 minutes before being invited to do anything else or receiving specific attention. It was hard to not feel a little sorry for them, as their polite ‘I’m-on-stage-so-I-need-to-look-like-I’m-absolutely-loving-everything’ smiles slowly became a little more forced.
Ended with a couple of negative paragraphs there, but I really didn’t hate it. In fact, with a more sensitive ending, I’d be absolutely raving about it. My advice would be to look past those niggles (maybe they won’t even bother you), and go watch the impossibly energetic and talented hip-hop cast vogueing/wacking/popping/whatever-the-new-thing-is. The cast put everything they’ve got into it, and single-handedly make this fresh take on Wonderland worthy of your time.