This reworking of Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland into a modern musical could, and should, have been fantastic.
The idea was a great one: transporting Alice to today and having our heroine find the confidence to deal with school bullies and absent fathers by following the white rabbit into the lawless crazy world of the Internet – our 21st century Wonderland. And with Damon Albarn brought in to add the music, what could possibly go wrong?
Well, something went wrong somewhere because wonder.land is a bit of a mess and adds up to significantly less than its many, many, many component parts.
The visuals are outstanding. And there’s no doubting the talent and effort that has gone into them, whether it’s the projections from 59 Productions or the deliberately OTT cartoon-ish wardrobe design from Katrina Lindsay, but the story – the framework they’re all meant to hang off – is confusing.
Ally (Lois Chimimba) tries to escape her tough life by creating an avatar that looks nothing like her – happier, thinner, whiter – and hiding behind this fake character to make the friends online that she cannot find in reality. But, unlike the book, both worlds exist simultaneously and run concurrently. That’s a huge cast of characters for us to get to know, two plot lines to follow instead of one, and chaotic jumping back and forth between the Internet and the real world that exhausts.
And the musical score, well, it’s utterly forgettable. There’s not a single memorable tune in the whole show, nor a verse or chorus to speak of.
Confusing the situation is what actually constitutes Wonderland in this adaptation. I was expecting it, like the book, to be a completely self-contained world. But that clear demarcation between the drab real world and the topsy-turvy virtual reality wonder.land isn’t in place.
Instead the Mad Hatter and Queen of Hearts are actually characters in the real world – Ally’s father and headmistress respectively. I was confused. They need to be in wonderland (or wonder.land – take your pick). And the impact of not having them in wonderland was that the insanity was all over the place. How odd to see the still-eccentric and bizarre Mad Hatter’s tea party take place in a café in the real world instead of online. It made no sense.
This chaos gets worse in the second half as we race towards the climax. Director Rufus Norris has too many elements and too many characters sharing the stage at the same time – worlds colliding, characters fighting, as well as singing and talking over each other… It just gets too much. You’re sitting there in your seat, overwhelmed, thinking, stop, stop!! Please take it down 20 notches!!
The cast though certainly give it their all and there are some terrific turns in the cast of characters we know so well such as the Queen of Hearts, the Caterpillar, and the White Rabbit.
Lois Chimimba also impresses in the lead role. She’s charming and engaging, and captures the spirit of a spirited young woman trying to find confidence in her own skin. And Carly Bawden is terrific as her iconic avatar, the blonde, blue-dressed Alice.
However, praise must go to Moira Buffini for the smart, sharp tone to the language. This is a show that is partly aimed at teenagers, yes, but it doesn’t speak down to them or patronise them. This is pitched perfectly – and that’s damn hard to do so credit where credit is due.
The show is flawed but if you just let it wash over you, there is enough to engage you for the time that you are watching. But, given the potential, this is very much an opportunity missed.
National Theatre, London to April 30, 2016
Production photographers: Brinkhoff Mögenburg.
- Carly Bawden (Alice) and Lois Chimimba (Aly)
- Lois Chimimba (Aly), Paul Hilton (Matt) and Enyi Okoronkwo (Luke)
- Enyi Okoronkwo (Luke), Lois Chimimba (Aly), Golda Rosheuvel (Bianca), Nadine Cox (WPC Rook) and Anna Francolini (Ms Manxome)
- Cydney Uffindell-Phillips (Mock Turtle), Daisy Maywood (Humpty), Carly Bawden (Alice), Sam Archer (Dum) and Ivan de Freitas (Dodo)