‘Curiouser and curiouser’

NIALL ADAMS reviews ‘wonder.land’ at the National Theatre. 

After last season’s enchanting re-imagining of Treasure Island, the National Theatre turns towards another children’s classic: Alice in Wonderland.

Aly Hatter (Lois Chimimba) is a teenager suffering from more than the average amount of pressures that go along with growing up. Her family is breaking down, she faces daily bullying at school and is constantly battling with her own insecurities. The internet offers her the ultimate escape, a portal into ‘wonder.land’, a digital world where she can redefine herself and connect with others experiencing similar problems. As reality and the digital realm begin to collide, Aly must struggle to find her own place in the world.

Chimimba capably leads the large ensemble cast, bringing both strength and vulnerability to the character. Her interactions with her digital self, played with a surprising amount of humanity by Carly Bawden, are some of the strongest moments of the piece, with both actors’ able to draw out the emotional nuances of the simplistic script. Their first act duet, exploring how much of Aly exists in the online Alice, is one of few standout numbers.

Anna Francolini similarly shines through the script as headteacher Mrs. Manxome. Drawing from both iconic villainesses (Cruella De’Vil certainly inspires the role in both style and personality) and ideologically driven politicians, she becomes an interesting new take on the Queen of Hearts. Francolini instantly draws the audiences’ attention whenever she is on stage, with her comic solo numbers receiving the most enthusiastic response.

Photo credit: Brinkhoff and Mögenburg
Photo credit: Brinkhoff and Mögenburg

The talented cast is supported by the production team’s spectacular work. Rufus Norris’ direction relies heavily upon integrated projections, and larger-than-life costumes create a whimsical, impressive performance. ’59 Productions’ digital projections of basic social media conversations are intelligently used throughout to construct the monumental Wonderland. The creation of the Cheshire Cat during ‘Eat Me’ (performed by Hal Fowler as the MC) in particular is a marvel to behold. Similarly, Fowler’s performance as the Caterpillar is supported by Katrina Lindsay’s fantastical costumes. Although at time slipping a bit too close to the absurd (the White Rabbit looks closer to something you would find in a Soho sex shop than Wonderland), the costumes remain inventive and bewitching.

Yet, the talent of the cast and production team is inhibited by the poorly constructed book and score of the musical. After successfully navigating the transition from Britpop hero to Mercury acclaimed solo artist, Damon Albarn’s attempt to turn his hand to show tunes is far from a success. Any good musical should leave the audience humming the songs as they leave, but the score of ‘wonder.land’ fails to leave an impression. Largely the musical numbers are unmemorable and are often difficult to follow with a deluge of motifs overlapping in chaotic fashion. Aly’s creation of her digital self is one of few songs to show glimmers of potential. Alluding to issues of identity, depression and race, the song has a genuine emotional core. However, symptomatic of the rest of the score, this is drowned out by the needless screeching of the MC.

The National describes the musical as ‘an Alice for the online generation’ but Moira Buffini’s book is better targeted at the generation before. At times, sounding like a school presentation on cybersafety, Buffini’s script presents the internet as dangerous and addictive using already outdated references. Aly’s bullying and relationship with her family hold the potential for a much more interesting plot, but these scenes are constantly lost amid the spectacle of Wonderland.

In the second act the cast sing ‘through fragility we shine’, an apt description for the production itself – where the score and book fail to captivate the audience, the cast and production team shine through. It is unfortunate that their talents are compromised in a show that single-mindedly builds itself around spectacular style and forgets to deliver much emotional substance.

‘wonder.land’ is playing at The National Theatre until April 2016. Tickets can be booked at http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/wonder.land?dates.