My reaction to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at the ballet’s première, on this same stage, over six years ago, was no more than two muted cheers, cautiously delivered. 50 performances further on, a more considered, longer-term judgement is that those cheers now extend to three and are much louder.

Christopher Wheeldon has refined and shaped his ballet into a classic that remains loyal to the timeless fantasy created by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson). The various minor revisions since the ballet’s last revival, such as the brief and sudden ticker tape parade of dancers in the aisles, all add to its curious charm.

The biggest alteration from that world première is to have grown an extra act and – structurally – this three-act version is now superbly paced. We rightly praise Wheeldon for his characterful, expressive and romantic choreography and his directorial skill is masterful in terms of maintaining momentum, which builds through a series of well-paced sprints, rather than the dull consistency of a marathon. This version of Alice has a pleasing structure, treating narrative, dance, comedy and design as equal bedfellows in a work that is now so much improved because of the balanced sum of these parts. A prologue and epilogue cleverly depicts Carroll’s “real world” inspirations for his Wonderland fantasy.

The ballet’s success owes much to Bob Crowley’s set and costume designs, which are lovingly authentic to the imagery of Charles Dodgson’s illustrations, and yet also bear an innovative edge that brings Wonderland, vividly and excitingly, to life. This mix of innovation and authenticity is best exemplified by the magnificent creation of the Cheshire cat. The grinning face is instantly recognisable from Dodgson’s super-large feline sitting on a tree branch and the animal’s ability to appear and disappear at will is assimilated by the cat being a giant disaggregated puppet, its various body parts manipulated in ‘black theatre’ style. Cowley’s costume designs are all spot-on, modern interpretations of Dodgson’s imagery from the flamingo ballerinas, with their arms doubling as the wading bird’s long, winding neck and head, to the Queen of Hearts’ blood-red, mobile gown; her bored husband, lodging within, reading his newspaper! 

Lauren Cuthbertson reprised her creation of the title role, from the 2011 première, which she also premiered just a couple of weeks’ ago, dancing on the other side of the world, with the Australian Ballet. Fresh from that Antipodean success, Cuthbertson again achieved an engaging potpourri of the essential characteristics of Carroll’s ‘loving, gentle and wildly curious’ heroine. Dodgson also wrote that Alice has ‘the eager enjoyment of Life that comes only in the happy hours of childhood (we should not forget that his Alice was seven at the time of her adventure down the rabbit hole), when all is new and fair, and when Sin and Sorrow are but names…’. 

Cuthbertson succeeds in making us believe all this and she dances with a delightful charm that manages to be naïve, trusting and authoritative; all at the same time. When the sun finally comes down on her career, Alice will be amongst the roles for which she will always be remembered.  

Federico Bonelli brings honour and dignity to the twin roles of the wrongfully-accused gardener’s boy (Jack) and the wrongfully-accused Knave of Hearts, elevating these characters’ prominence above the anonymity that they might otherwise have had, and strongly partnering Cuthbertson in their lyrical duets, thematically emphasising elegant turning of every kind. The role of Lewis Carroll seems enhanced in the prologue (I only recall him as the photographer) and Edward Watson reprises this, alongside his nervous, twitchy portrayal of The White Rabbit, with suitable gusto.    

The comedy is strong throughout and rarely has the Royal Opera House heard such a regularity of laughter. Laura Morera brings naughty, haughty charisma and an impressive sense of stagecraft to the Queen of Hearts (prefaced in the prologue by the heartless Mother); Christopher Saunders combines some ponderous dancing as the Father with a witty turn as the henpecked, bored King; Steven McRae reprises his fine display of tap dancing as the Mad Hatter (a brilliant choreographic innovation by Wheeldon); and Gary Avis invests masterful comic timing into the role of the Duchess. Finally, a small bouquet is due to Ruben Garcia who brought a bravado cameo touch to his uncredited role as a threatened hedgehog! 

Joby Talbot achieves that rarity of a new ballet score with memorable melodies, especially in the gorgeous concluding pas de deux, alongside highly descriptive themes. The tribute to the Rose Adagio of The Sleeping Beauty for the Queen of Hearts and her four courtiers (amongst whom Bennet Gartside was fabulous) is both choreographic and musical genius. 

As with Carroll’s original fantasy novel, Wheeldon’s wonderful ballet matures and pleases, yet more, at each revisit.