Alice in Funderland
Abbey Theatre, Dublin
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” So says Lewis Carroll’s Alice, transported to an illogical place where everything, including her, gets blown out of all proportion. Something directly similar happens in Phillip McMahon and Raymond Scannell’s tremendously ambitious musical, originally commissioned by THISISPOPBABY and now impressively realised by director Wayne Jordan for the Abbey, which folds the whimsy and nightmare of Carroll’s original into a modern Dublin fantasia.
Part love story, part satire, part pastiche, part 30-minutes-too-long, it seems to absorb Alice’s identity crisis, unsure at times of who it’s addressing, or what riddles it needs to solve.
Take Alice, a Corkonian innocent in Dublin – or as innocent as anyone can be in a cornflower blue minidress. That she is played by the ethereal Sarah Greene, who balances between adorable ingénue and sex kitten while even dancing in silver stilettos, gives you some sense of McMahon’s Wonderland as a sexualised playground. In Dublin for her sister’s hen party, she pursues a mysterious stranger named Warren down the proverbial rabbit hole, while rebounding from a boyfriend who is both faithless and, more insultingly, dead from a peanut allergy. “He had anaphylaxis,” says Alice. “And every other slut in town,” replies Susannah de Wrixon’s Susan.
That acid wit, somewhere between Carroll’s word play and the razor-sharp put-downs of a drag cabaret, provides the show’s tone, and designer Naomi Wilkinson responds with a set that is club culture writ large. Every surface is coated in candy blue and – my God! – you have to see her costumes. An enjoyably delirious aesthetic, it somehow makes the Abbey seem gargantuan, as though neither Jack Phelan’s supple, scene-setting video, Sinéad McKenna’s smoothly interplaying lights or even 15 accomplished cast members and five musicians could hope to fill it.
Is this why the otherwise deft McMahon pushes his satirical buttons so hard, where Alice has shown “no return on investment”, the note-perfect Kathy Rose O’Brien gets a song so crammed with economic metaphor its currency becomes devalued, or the excellent Mark O’Regan – who steals every scene that isn’t nailed down – appears as The Minister (with a Chesire grin) to inform us, “We all partied”?
Forcing the point – whether making the queer subtext explicit with Tony Flynn’s withering drag portrayal of Delores, The Queen of Hartstown, stressing the allegory, or frequently addressing the audience with cheesy self-reference – seems like a production unsure of itself. Tellingly, it is more sublime and even subversive in its most gentle moments. The staggeringly talented Paul Reid, as a gay scenester on rollerskates, helps Greene find the show’s heart on We’re All on the Edge, a beautiful, unlikely duet; Lisa Byrne’s Chloe, a comic confection, brings crackle and precision to the electropop bonding number Cut from the Same Cloth; and Scannell and McMahon’s most daring song, Torsos in the Banal, gives de Wrixon and the phenomenal Ruth McGill a genuinely moving piece inspired by tabloid grotesquerie.
Those moments are pure alchemy, sublimating a scuffed reality into poetry, transforming a battered zeitgeist into mirth. Nothing achieves this better than the finale, an undulating, consoling harmony with the entire company, whose refrain, “There is no fear, just nonsense,” promises that even amid the confusion of our place and time every puzzle can be solved. Taken altogether, that’s quite an achievement, and it makes for one wild ride.
Runs until May 12th