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14th March 2024

Brilliantly slick and thoroughly enjoyable: UMMTS ‘Alice by Heart’ review

You would have to be mad as a Hatter to not enjoy this Wonder-ful performance by UMMTS
Brilliantly slick and thoroughly enjoyable: UMMTS ‘Alice by Heart’ review
Photo: Amber Daly @ UMMTS

UMMTS’ recent show has the audience falling down the rabbit hole and in love with the production as the cast is a wonder to watch.

This review has to begin with complete admiration for the University of Manchester’s Musical Theatre Society; Alice by Heart is not a simple show to put on and yet the ease and style with which Madison French and the society executed this production is certainly something they should be proud of.

The 2012 piece (written by the same team as Spring Awakening)takes inspiration from  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, transposing the story to a tube station during the WWII Blitz. We follow a teenage Alice (Lara Wantling) retelling stories of Wonderland by heart to her dear friend Alfred, who will become White Rabbit (Noah Wessel) as he progressively becomes more ill. As Alice’s words bring life to the childhood dream she talks of, the local characters of the bomb shelter morph into the classic Carroll characters we expect to see as soon as the word Wonderland.

When the audience walk into the traverse auditorium, which works wonderfully for this piece, there is a jewel-like promise that what is about to happen will be a mix of childhood silliness and yet shot through with darkness, as Emma Flack and Josie Grimsell as a young Alice and Alfred run around with a juvenile joy that seems lost the minute the play begins yet is yearned throughout – it’s a very tender moment to open the musical with. We then are thrust into a slightly chaotic first scene in the tube station, where some points hit melodrama instead of passion but in a way, the piece can withstand this. It is not the strongest first scene I have seen and this is a shame as I think the concept of this musical needs strong foundations but I am also aware I was watching the first night. Despite this, I was thinking that I could not wait to see where this stunningly talented cast were going to take me next.

The first song is ‘West of Words’, a duet between Wantling and Wessel where immediately you could see why they had been cast together as their voices complemented the others. I did wish sometimes that Wessel sang through his vowels slightly more sometimes. That said, it was a genuine joy to watch them both every time they were on stage.  The feverish ‘Down the Hole’ follows pretty soon and from this moment, it is clear that every single person involved in this production not only is highly talented but also has enjoyed working on it. The lighting design, the choreography, the musicians, the costume designs are all genuinely so wonderful and professional.

Through the beautiful delivery of the Carrol-esque dialogue and the energy of the cast, Wonderland is created with ease and excitement. Among the carousel of characters like The Cheshire Cat (played in a superb feline fashion by El Butcher), The Caterpillar and The Mad Hatter to name a few and the manic, spiralling energy the musical demands, the cast found genuine moments of beauty, like the a cappella moment at the end of ‘The Key Is’.  There is also a pulsing sense of silly, camp humour throughout this whole piece, with special mentions to Will Knight as The Duchess and Steffan Eldridge as Dormouse who brought such joy to the stage.

During the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party scene, the piece takes a turn, revealing anxieties about ending and death. While ‘Sick to Death of Alice-ness’ was slightly shaky at points, I am certainly putting this down to first-night nerves as the chilling switch of Wessel from White Rabbit to March Hare had a horrid, quiet cruelty. The crazed energy of this scene was executed brilliantly.

This darker tone introduces Max Rosen as the Jabberwock and later as the Mock Turtle.  Every time Rosen steps on stage, one can be reassured that they are going to see something immaculate; the stage presence he has makes him a marvel. As the Jabberwock, the disturbing fear he created was spot on, as the Mock Turtle – camp joy turned on like a tap. Even as the King of Hearts, he was a pleasure to watch.

From this point on, the show is almost flawless. The song that steals the show has to be the stunning Megan Handy as The Queen of Hearts singing the cabaret style ‘Isn’t It A Trial’. I genuinely had to remind myself to make notes during this whole scene, which includes ‘Do You Think We Think You’re Alice?’ and ‘I’ve Shrunk Enough’, as it was just sublime that I just had to sit back and watch with pleasure a stunning cast clearing loving performing.

The band were as always gorgeous to listen to and obviously so talented to glide with ease through the multiple genres that Alice by Heart touches on. They complimented the glorious tones of the wonderful voices on stage so effortlessly. Another mention must absolutely go to the dance ensemble who took the show from something pretty good to something splendid- they were beautiful to watch.

The musical snaps back to the WWII setting with the death of Alfred and we suddenly see this strange collection of broken people. The cast is wonderful and moments where the acting felt slightly forced were few and far between and I had a wonderful experience. Talking to a friend after the show, I joked that this piece has maybe broken my aversion to musicals — writing this review, I don’t think it is a joke anymore. The piece was brilliantly slick and thoroughly enjoyable.

The final point must simply be huge admiration for Lara Wantling who is on stage for the entire piece. She was a gorgeous Alice to follow and her world was one that was a wonder to be immersed in. She was the beating heart of the piece and should be incredibly proud of her work.

Alice by Heart runs until March 16 at the Students’ Union theatre. You can find tickets here.

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