West End legend Dave Willetts on his role as the White Rabbit

Wonderland at the Millennium Forum from Tuesday 21st to Saturday 25th March

It doesn’t come much more magical and fantastical than Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

With a storyline packed with as much imagination as a late 1960’s Beatles track, it is no surprise that this iconic fairytale made its way to the stage. ‘Wonderland’ is an enchanting musical adaptation Lewis Carroll’s famous story and it will touch down at the Millennium Forum later this month as part of the UK tour.

Having captivated audiences throughout the world since debuting in Tampa, Florida in 2009, the  multi Grammy, Tony and Drama Desk Award nominated production will run from Tuesday 21st to Saturday 25th March.

Wonderland features a star studded cast including Wendi Peters, best known for her role as the vivacious Cilla Battersby in Coronation Street, as the Queen of Hearts and West End legend Dave Willetts as the White Rabbit.

Dave Willetts life story is the stuff of fairytales too, and in particular, how he made his big break in theatre. “I was a very late starter in professional theatre” he told me when we caught up with him this week.

“I actually didn’t start until I was about 34 in fact. I used to be a manager for an engineering company and travel the world to sort out the company’s problems but it was always kind of the sticky end of the lollipop type of job. Whenever there was a problem I had to go and sort it out, so no-one was really ever that pleased to see me” he says with a laugh.  

“But like a lot of people in this business, my relaxation, my hobby was to be involved in the world of amateaur damatics and I did that for many years.

“I did a show called ‘Charlie and Algernon’ which received some very good reviews and the artistic director of the local theatre, which was the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, came to see the show and then gave me a chance to audition for their forthcoming production of Annie. Low and behold, he offered me the role of third flunky from the left in the chorus.

“I gave up my company car, my Bupa membership and said goodbye to my secretary on the Friday afternoon and started rehearsals in a dingy church hall on the Monday morning.

“Myself and my wife bought two second hand bikes and my wife took on a job as a waitress. My two girls were very small at the time so it was like a joint adventure for us. We gave ourselves three years, but after 12 months I was playing Jean Valjean in Les Misérables on the West End. Then I went straight into performing as the phantom in the Phantom on the West End. Instead of traveling the world as an engineer, I started to travel the word as a performer. It’s been a great adventure for the past 30 years now.”

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The 64 year old Brummie has held the most coveted roles in musical theatre and performed in some of the most iconic theatres throughout the world. Just a slight career change then for the West End legend, but it’s a career change that he insists is open to anyone. “There’s no magic wand in this business and there’s no rhyme or reason why some people get a role and others don’t” he said.

“But the only thing I can say is that if you are interested in going into the theatre, then a good route to gain experience is the world of amateaur dramatics.

“It gets you used to performing. It also gets you used to performing in-front of an audience. It can teach you the tricks of the trade, it can teach you what to do and more importantly what not to do. Keep your eyes and ears open, work hard and train hard, and put yourself in as many positions as possible to be involved in theatre.”

Since opening in Edinburgh at the end of January, Wonderland has been entertaining audiences right across the UK and is leaving a trail of excitement and enjoyment in its wake. “The tour is going really well and the audiences are loving it” Dave said.

“We have had some great reactions so far. It’s a fantastic evening’s entertainment with great songs, great dancing, a great set, great costumes and great singing. It’s all that you could want from a show.”

“The role is great fun too. I’ve never played an animal before, I have played everything from God to a rabbit now” he laughs.

“It’s all in the body language with this character, there are no funny voices. It is how you would expect the Wonderland characters to be. We’re all in perfect costumes and all the characters are there in the show and  it’s my job as the White Rabbit to link between Wonderland and the real world.

“When you get to a certain age in this business, the roles become a little thin on the ground. However, the roles that are there are really good roles because they tend to involve more acting than singing. I’ve always thought with musicals, it’s about 30 percent singing and 70 percent acting because even when the song comes in you still have to act it.

“The song takes the spoken word to another level. The words and the lyrics of the song are an extension to the dialogue of the script and that’s what I love about my role when I do sing songs, it is just an extension of my character.”

And Dave feels that local audiences are in for a treat. “They’ll absolutely love it” Dave said with sincerity, and it’s obviously a production he feels proud to be part of.

“I’ve been to Derry on two or three occasions and the audiences have always been fantastic. They’ll be able to come along to show, sit there for two hours and experience this fantastic music and this fantastic story. There's laughs and there’s moments where you just go ‘awww’. There’s everything in it and from my experience of Derry audiences, they’re going to love it.”

You can see Dave as the White Rabbit when Wonderland comes to town from Tuesday 21st March with tickets from £16.50.

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