Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Theatre review: wonder.land

It's the clichés you always hear about musicals - that they're not written, they're rewritten; that every "effortless" hit has spent years in development - that come to mind during wonder.land, the National's much-maligned big winter spectacular. Perhaps going into it with low expectations helped, but it seems that under what is, undoubtedly, something of a mess, a pretty good show is struggling to get out and, given time, might well have done. As the title suggests, Moira Buffini (book and lyrics) and Damon Albarn's (music) musical takes Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland stories and transposes them to the digital age. Following her parents' breakup, Aly (Lois Chimimba) has moved to a new school where she immediately becomes a target of the resident mean girls, who bully her in real life and online.

Her phone becomes her refuge when she downloads the wonder.land game, and creates an avatar Alice (Carly Bawden) who seems very different, in appearance at least, from her real self.


She chooses the quest of following the White Rabbit (Joshua Lacey,) while many of the other Carroll characters she meets are other avatars of teenagers trying to escape their reality - the fat male twins Dee (Leon Cooke) and Dum (Sam Archer) are girls whose parents want them to be ballet dancers, and are forbidden from eating anything fattening in real life. But Aly's escape into wonder.land is threatened by the rules against using her phone at school, aggressively enforced by the headmistress.


Although I avoid reviews, general buzz can he harder to miss and ever since wonder.land premiered in Manchester in the summer word has been that it was no good, with even Albarn admitting that he was too busy with the new Blur album to get the songs right. He, Buffini and director Rufus Norris have been working on the show ever since, but that's still only a period of a few months and while there's nothing wrong with Norris' big-budget production - the performances are strong, Rae Smith and Katrina Lindsay's designs striking and, while the video work by 59 Productions is obviously crucial, the designers still rely most on theatrical techniques to bring the online world to life - the script and songs feel like a promising work that wound up on stage way too early.


Because there are a lot of great elements here, like the sinister Cheshire Cat (Hal Fowler) which Aly is worried might be grooming her, the collection of misfits who become her online friends, and a particularly witty visual in the second act has her IRL GBFF Luke (Enyi Okoronkwo) bring reinforcements from the game he prefers - leading to an army of zombies doing jazz-hands and high-kicks. But the songs rarely come to life and the way the story's split into reality and online world is sometimes confused: Most of Carroll's characters find their modern equivalent in wonder.land itself, but Aly's father (Paul Hilton) becomes the Mad Hatter in a tea-party scene that takes place in monochrome reality.


Probably the best-realised innovation in Buffini's script is the idea of Alice herself becoming the evil Red Queen. This comes about when Aly's headmistress confiscates her phone and hijacks her avatar to turn wonder.land into a kingdom under her despotic rule, and as everywhere else in the show Anna Francolini's Ms Manxome is the absolute highlight, a gloriously demented performance that makes any plot holes irrelevant the moment she walks onstage, and should be borne in mind if the Matilda producers ever decide to try out an actual female Miss Trunchbull*. When Francolini's on stage this is a great show; when she's not, it isn't quite the disaster some people have been calling it, but it certainly doesn't hold together as well as one might have hoped.

wonder.land by Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris is booking in repertory until the 30th of April at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

*I remember original Trunchbull Bertie Carvel saying somewhere his aim was that the audience not be quite sure if he was really a man or woman, and the production could keep that feel going by variously casting men and women.

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