Adapting a well-loved children's classic for stage or screen is a risky business, all the more so when it’s a surreal work like Lewis Carroll's Alice stories. Christoper Wheeldon’s 2011 ballet was an unquestioned triumph; Tim Burton’s 2010 movie garnered a more mixed response, delighting Burton aficionados but disappointing others. With the benefit of the full panoply of Royal Opera staging (it was given in concert in 2016) how would Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures Underground fare?

Clare Presland, Claudia Boyle, Hilary Summers © ROH | Clive Barda
Clare Presland, Claudia Boyle, Hilary Summers
© ROH | Clive Barda

Barry announces his intent from the off: the visual setting for the descent down the rabbit hole is striking, with video objects zooming past and Alice identified as Victorian child by the frame of her hooped skirt. The pace is frantic, with Claudia Boyle running up and down a dizzying series of major and minor arpeggios rising to high Cs (we’re told there are 98 of them in the role). The penchant for musical gags continues with a close harmony quartet intoning “Drink me” (clad as bottles) and “Eat me” (clad as fairy cakes).

Claudia Boyle (Alice) and quartet of cakes © ROH | Clive Barda
Claudia Boyle (Alice) and quartet of cakes
© ROH | Clive Barda

It’s all good fun and highly virtuosic, but it betrays three crucial problems in the way the show is constructed. Firstly, Barry and director/designer Antony McDonald are making the assumption that you already know the Alice stories backwards. If you don’t remember what the “Eat me” and “Drink me” do to Alice, the libretto and staging aren’t going to tell you. The whole show runs as a kind of “Alice’s Greatest Hits” sequence of your favourite scenes and rhymes without really linking them: the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the Queen’s croquet match, Jabberwocky, the Mock Turtle, The Walrus and the Carpenter and several more. At 55 minutes, there simply isn’t time to render each of them properly, so Barry and McDonald don’t really try: rather, they do just enough to prompt your existing memory of the books. If you’re going to come to Alice’s Adventures Underground, you’d be well advised to reread the books before doing so – and in my view, that's losing the point, making this a sort of tribute show rather than a stage work in its own right.

Claudia Boyle (Alice) and quartet of flowers © ROH | Clive Barda
Claudia Boyle (Alice) and quartet of flowers
© ROH | Clive Barda

The second problem is that the list of musical gags is limited. Boyle does a good high C, but I was getting bored with them long before the 98th one. The close harmony quartet trick got overused (it reappeared at various later points in the show). Various bits of fun added by the orchestration were also re-used on several occasions.

Thirdly, the madcap pace is unrelenting. It’s as if we’ve been instructed that “fast is fun” and we’re all expected to enjoy it. The trouble is, what’s happening on stage just isn’t funny enough to carry us with the 1000 mile an hour action.

Mark Stone (White Knight) © ROH | Clive Barda
Mark Stone (White Knight)
© ROH | Clive Barda

These things are a pity, because there is some fine work by several of those involved. McDonald’s sets and costumes are delicious. Barry’s music is very listenable and Thomas Adès conducts the Royal Opera Orchestra with a fair level of brio. There's generally enthusiastic stage movement and some good singing, although we could have done with better diction. And the humour does hit the mark on several of the scenes, not least the one with the Duchess’ sneezing baby, a multilingual piano lesson that’s thrown in for good measure, or the Russian/French versions of Jabberwocky. And towards the end, there is pure delight with the Red and White Knights, sung beautifully by Joshua Bloom and Mark Stone, prancing round the stage in exceptionally clever and wonderfully crafted costumes which allows each to combine both horse and rider.

So there’s good stuff, but is it enough? I enjoyed plenty of it, but I’m afraid I found myself clock-watching: for a show this length, that's not a good sign.

**111