Romantic Ireland’s alive and kicking, but not as Yeats ever imagined it. This new musical, originally commissioned and developed by the formidable art/theatre outfit, THISISPOPBABY, and presented in collaboration with Ireland’s national theatre, gets its world premiere on the esteemed Abbey stage.
That stage is now a rubberised cobalt blue. A giant LED screen looms over it. Rollerskating hipsters and manic buggy-pushers tear across it. Bewigged drag queens, cherry-red PVC-clad nightclub dancers, raging bridezillas, and a sleazy politician (‘we all partied …’) charge through it. Everything is either crimson or hot pink. And I haven’t even mentioned the shoes!
There is so much to like in this show, a fantastic Irish re-telling of Alice in Wonderland which follows the misfortunes of a confused Cork girl adrift in Dublin after disappearing down the rabbit-hole during her sister’s hen-party. After hooking up with an unlikely Dub, she enlists a collection of extraordinary characters – taxi drivers, TV chat-show hosts, the aforementioned politician – to help her find her way to H(e)artstown where, alas, the Queen of Hartstown, clad in an oversized ballgown, awaits to disenchant her.
For most of the cast, this is their first time on the Abbey stage, and the newcomers give stalwarts like Mark O’Regan, Kathy Rose O’Brien, Ruth McGill and Susannah de Wrixon a run for their money. Everyone wins in this competition, especially the audience. The phenomenally gifted Paul Reid, star of the Corn Exchange’s production of Man of Valour during last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, turns out to have a gorgeous singing voice as well, and his duet with Sarah Greene’s tough-talking but vulnerable Alice, ‘We’re all on the edge’, is one of the highlights of the night. Like the best musicals, for all the acidity, there’s a whole lot of heart pumping through it. Despite the odd wobbly moment of choreography, the production hums with an energy that belies the relatively small cast of fifteen, with only five musicians in support. With glorious attention to detail, Naomi Wilkinson’s eye-wateringly bright set and costumes kit out this electro-pop musical in lurid lollipop colours and killer heels. Everything shines – almost. The dialogue in the opening scenes is somewhat wooden, the delivery pitched somewhat too nervily, and a few weaker musical numbers have gone by before Alice loses herself in Dublin and the scenes take on a stronger shape.
The production zips in and out of allegory and satire, as well as surreal fantasy and startling reality. At times, the writer, Philip McMahon’s biting pen is merely catty, at others, swingeingly sharp. Some of the heroines and victims marked out for attention are bewildering rather than simply bewildered, but more often than not the dart of satire finds its target: ‘stay focussed, work hard, and before you know it it will all be over’, the mogul-queen of Hartstown tells her line of minions. ‘Let’s run the country into the ground’, shouts an exuberant gospel-choir chorus backing the ‘Minister for All You Need’, clad resolutely in green jersey. This is a bold new direction for the main stage of the Abbey Theatre, as they well know, but a welcome one, and it looks like the gamble has paid off.