Christopher Wheeldon's full-length foray into the fantastical world of Lewis Carroll is so rich in artistry, so waggishly silly, so clever and convivial and such perfect brain food for a child's imagination that it practically demands to be viewed in the presence of children.
So it’s a pity that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - originally commissioned by the Royal Opera House in 2011 and currently in its second run - is not marketed as a children’s ballet, because this is exactly the kind of production that has the potential to instill a new generation with a lifelong fascination for ballet.
Not to say that Alice isn't magical for adults; it's the most fun I've had at the theatre in eons and Wheeldon's choreography moves at such a rip-roaringly rapid pace that it's impossible not to catch your breath as Alice tumbles from one absurd situation to the next.
Opening night's Alice is Sarah Lamb, and though not Wheeldon's first-cast choice (the part was created for fellow principal Lauren Cuthbertson), her portrayal of Alice is wonderfully accomplished, with just the right mix of innocence and impertinence. She has the perfect physique: a youthful demeanor, wide-eyes and colt-like limbs that trick you into believing you're watching a young girl on the cusp of womanhood.
Wheeldon's superior storytelling skills are asserted from the very first scene. The curtain opens on a party thrown by Alice's parents; a chaotic celebration that gives the characters who will soon populate Alice's dreams the chance to embed themselves in her subconscious. Most of the dancers play dual characters: Edward Watson is sprightly as Lewis Caroll (who later morphs into a moody White Rabbit with a penchant for Karl Lagerfield-type suits), Gary Avis's brash, bumptious depiction of the Duchess is slapstick humour at its very best and Zenaida Yanowsky's metamorphosis from Alice's overwrought, querulous mother to the power-hungry Queen of Hearts is stomach-churningly funny.
But it's Jack the gardener, played by a charming but otherwise unforgettable Federico Bonelli, who makes the most impression on Alice. The two exchange a tender look, a dulcet pas de deux and an exchange of gifts (a red rose for her; a jam tart for him) before he's sent away by Alice's raging mother. Wheeldon does well to introduce a love interest for Alice; Bonelli's appearance throughout Alice's Wonderland sequences as a knave accused of stealing a jam tart is an inspired plot device that ensures the story never strays from the journey at hand.
And what a journey it is! A dissolving Cheshire Cat maneuvered by no less than eight people, a chain-smoking, belly-shaking Caterpillar with a tail made up of sixteen leggy, high-heeled corp de ballet dancers, playing cards that loom six feet high and special effects galore. Bob Crowley's designs maketh the show - but such is his genius that the spectacle often overpowers the dancing.
If you can afford it, take your children or your neighbour's children (hell, just borrow someone else's child for the day) and for three hours, revel in the wonder of watching the world through rose-tinted glasses. A wild ride you won't forget in a hurry.