The new musical wonder.land, created by Blur singer Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris has been highly anticipated this year, ahead of its opening this week at the National Theatre. This brand new take on the classic story of Alice In Wonderland started life when Damon Albarn met up with Rufus Norris to discuss the idea, removed his smart phone from his pocket and said ‘this is the rabbit hole’.
Aly is the new girl at school. Her parents are recently divorced and she is being bullied. She finds comfort in an online game called wonder.land, where she creates an avatar of herself (played by Carly Bawden) and goes into a world of online gaming where she can be the best version of herself, because anything is possible. This is Alice’s quest to find herself in a world where is she holding on to shreds of her family. She makes friends with other online gamers. A giant mouse (hilariously played by Ed Wade), the boisterous twins Dum and Dee (played by Sam Archer and Leon Cooke), a cross dressing Dodo who likes to wear his sisters clothes (played by Ivan De Freitas) and a Mock Turtle who is so shy she won’t come out of the dustbin she is hiding in (Cydney Uffindell-phillips).
Things take a turn for the worse when Aly’s mobile phone is confiscated at school by the evil Ms Manxome, who takes over her game, steals her identity and unleashes her wrath upon the online world. Can Aly manage to get her phone back in time to save her online friends before they are all killed, or will she have her account deleted for malicious behaviour and lose the life she found so much comfort in?
Paul Hilton plays Aly’s dad well in the show but does seem to be a little too heavily influenced by Mr Wormwood in Matilda, leaving me rather un-compassionate towards him as a genuine character. Anna Francolini is brilliant as the evil Ms Manxome, being truly evil but loveable at the same time. Golda Rosheuvel is equally good as Aly’s mum Bianca, who manages to balance strict single parent with loving mother. Daisy Maywood is captivating as Humpty, with nothing but a helium balloon she wanders around the stage being almost lifted from the ground and is fascinating to watch. Carly Bawden is wonderful as Aly’s Avatar Alice. She looks and sounds great and anyone who can manage to walk in her act one shoes deserves a medal! Lois Chimimba plays Aly well although vocally I didn’t warm to her voice.
The set design and production of wonder.land is very good. An invisible screen manages to play video alongside the cast on stage and emerge them into the action. Set pieces whizz on and off stage via remote control and is all very nicely done.
What sadly lets this show down though is the music. Damon Albarn is famous for his 90’s pop songs with band Blur and Moira Buffini (book and lyrics) has had huge success in recent years with the brilliant comedy Handbagged but together on this project they have produced nothing more than noise. Where are the choruses an audience so needs to hear in order to find a song memorable? The majority of the songs were sung through dialogue in a very monotone way, hardly varying their tone. I really wanted the songs to let rip and turn into huge numbers but in act one there was very little to impress. Act two however really did pick up the pace. Musically there were a few good, toe tapping melodies but lyrically the songs were still pretty empty with no substance.
Alice In Wonderland is such a well loved story that the consencus around me as I left the theatre was that it was just too far removed from the original story for people to embrace as what they love about the original. wonder.land is a brilliant concept that shows us how in this technological world we are living in, people can’t live without their mobiles. It also touches on how dangerous the online world can be as you never really know who you are talking to as anyone can hide behind an avatar.
wonder.land is worth a watch but the music and lyrics really need to be started again from scratch in order to give this musical the chance of further life that it really could deserve.
Reviewed by West End Wilma
Photo: Alastair Muir
wonder.land is playing at the National Theatre until 28 February 2016. Click here for tickets