ZooNation Dance Company
runs until 3 January
Old meets new this year as ZooNation, the UK’s leading hip-hop theatre company, bring their latest production to the hallowed halls of the Royal Opera House. While the Royal Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland plays in the main house, The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party takes up residence in the Linbury Studio Theatre for the Christmas period. Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s classic fantasy novel, artistic director Kate Prince and the company have together created a wonderfully vibrant, gloriously wacky show that delights all ages with inventive choreography, gorgeous designs and a real party atmosphere.
The action begins not in Wonderland, or even by a rabbit hole on a riverbank, but in a psychiatric institution: young doctor Ernest has been dumped with a huge batch of files about an odd collection of patients, including a Queen of Hearts with anger issues, a very confused girl called Alice and an apparently always cheerful Cheshire Cat. The production gets off to a rather slow start, but once we’re into the meat of the action the sparks begin to fly as we meet each character in turn. While Ernest desperately attempts to find cures for these most difficult of cases – with some temporary success – he is in fact drawn further into their world and, as his appearance becomes increasingly dishevelled, his feet and body begin to twitch and jerk in time to the beat along with the rest and best of them.
There are impressive performances across the board, with ensemble numbers shining as the whole cast perform with apparently limitless energy, their movements slick and sharp but also making the most of Prince’s fun, witty choreography. It’s nigh on impossible to pick a stand-out, with wonderful appearances by Teneisha Bonner as the haughty Queen of Hearts, Rowen Hawkins and Ross Sands who delight the audience with their hip-hop tricks and endless bickering, and Issac ‘Turbo’ Baptiste who charms us as the Mad Hatter himself, to name just a few. As Ernest, Tommy Franzen threatens to steal the show through his transformation from awkward doctor to fantastic dancer, revelling in the antics of the rather bonkers tea party. He is particularly exciting in the transitional passages, appearing as if the rhythms are occupying his body against his will, and using the full space of the stage with his nervous energy that gradually turns into highly skilled routines.
The reason for the elongated interval is quickly revealed as Ben Stones’s set undergoes a fabulous transformation: the tea party is realised beautifully, and the lighting really adds to the unconventional party feel. In Act II the exuberance is stepped up a notch and, while the story doesn’t really progress, we don’t mind as we are swept away in the joyously riotous dance – particularly those who were lucky enough to be brought up on stage from the front row into the action. The live music from Josh Cohen and DJ Walde, with vocals by Sheree Dubois, skilfully mix a variety of styles and influences to create a patchwork of exuberant melodies and beats.
It was fantastic to see a wide variety of age groups enjoying the show and the company do a great job of accommodating all, whether they are regular ROH patrons or hip-hop aficionados. We are urged not to keep quiet but to show appreciation throughout, and the audience duly replies with whoops and shouts of excitement; this works to create an atmosphere of fun and a theatrical space with no constrictions or boundaries.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party truly is a feast of colour, music and above all dance for all the family: an ideal introduction to hip-hop, and an imaginative and deliciously boisterous alternative to pantomime.
Check out the Royal Opera House’s dance-off between two Mad Hatters – ZooNation’s Turbo and the Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae.