Alice in Wonderland is the story that spawned a thousand adaptations, the latest of which is currently playing at the National Theatre. After a lukewarm reception in Manchester, Damon Albarn’s musical has comes to try its luck with Londonders.
Loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, Albarn and his collaborators, scriptwriter Moira Buffini and National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris, have hoiked the coming of age story into the twenty-first century by substituting Alice’s Wonderland for Aly’s wonder.land, a mobile game that allows the user to escape their problems by entering the game as an avatar.
The intention is to explore the line between our online and offline worlds and the creators have clearly enjoyed playing around with the concept, both on and offstage. The play’s website has the same url as the game and audience members can explore an immersive digital exhibition, created to complement the production.
Albarn’s involvement inevitably draws attention to the score which, unfortunately, is a bit hit-and-miss. A useful litmus test for a musical (especially an unfamiliar one) is whether or not you spend the next 24 hours with the songs stuck in your head. On this occasion, I left the theatre struggling to recall any of the melodies I’d just heard (on the other hand, I was belting out numbers from the Broadway smash Hamilton for days after listening to the soundtrack.).
Some songs stand out above others; a duet between Aly and her blonde-haired, long-legged avatar, Alice, shows off Carly Bawden’s impressive range and vocal power. Another, between Paul Hilton and Golda Rosheuvel as Aly’s mum and dad, creates a touching melodic moment that sheds much-needed light on their fractured relationship. On the other hand, a tea party-inspired number just before the interval is over-crowded and under-written, a misjudged homage to the knees-up, cockney style of ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’, crossed with ‘The Laughing Policeman’.
Occasionally the language jars; teenage vocabulary is constantly in flux and the script struggles to keep up with the zeitgeist, resulting in the odd outdated word or reference. It’s also a little heavy-handed with its message and has nothing fresh to add to the broader conversation surrounding teenagers and the Internet, but a cast of convincing characters just about carry off the saccharine morality.
On the whole, the cast is very strong. Ann Francolini is a riot as the uptight headmistress, Ms Manxome. More dictator than educator, when she confiscates Aly’s phone, she finds herself drawn into wonder.land, taking over and corrupting Aly’s girlish avator. Her transition from strict teacher to power-crazy sociopath is a joy to watch, punctuated by the best musical numbers in the show.
Yet, despite solid performances, the real star of wonder.land is the spectacular production design. From the moment Aly enters the game, we are thrown into the digital world with a riotous combination of projection, graphics and outlandish costumes that stand in stark contrast to the monochromatic, ‘real world’ sets.
Unfortunately, wonder.land falls into its own trap. By creating such a visual polarity between the glitz and energy of the game and the dreariness of real life, it undermines the message it’s trying to convey. The audience sit through the grey palate of Ali’s school and home life patiently enough, but the excessive, bonkers, colourful wonder.land scenes are where the fun really lies. Real life, by these standards, is not better than fiction. I know where I’d rather spend my time.