wonder.land*** (National Theatre, Olivier)

Posted: December 1, 2015 in Theatre


A plump teenage girl of mixed race, harassed by battling parents and bullied at school, creates an alter ego that is white and has flowing blond hair and a Kate Moss figure. She gets groomed on the internet by a sleazy DJ who lures her into a virtual world of  weirdos, monsters and a grinning cat. The first 20 minutes of the National’s new “family” show is played without a hint of irony and is so off message that it can only be assumed that the creators are joking, as is usually the case when the writer is Moira Buffini.  This musical take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is bang up to date and, after its very unsettling start, it follows the predictable course of hammering home messages about personal esteem, self-empowerment, etc. Rufus Norris’s production is awash with computer graphics, but, even when magnified to fill the Olivier stage, they look pretty old hat and it is the traditional values of costumes, props and choreography that work best, as in a splendid tea party that brings the first half to a close. Buffini supplies book and lyrics, Damon Albarn the 1990s pop-style score, most of which is pretty catchy, even if it sometimes seems as if the composer is trying to find 57 different varieties of Park Life. The sameness of the songs makes them all something of a blur (sorry), but the absence of the one killer number that all great musicals need could prove to be the show’s biggest problem. Lois Chimimba is an endearing real Alice, Carly Bawden is bubbly as her avatar equivalent, Golda Rosheuvel and Paul Hilton score highly as Mom and Dad (he doubling as the Mad Hatter). Buffini’s  book goes a little off-course when the villainous head mistress (Anna Francolini in Miss Hannigan mode) steals the Alice avatar and turns her into the Red Queen. This plot line is always strained, highlighting the problems of a book that is patchy, with Albarn’s score not being quite strong enough to lift it when it flags. Yes, much of the show is packed full of invention, colour and spectacle and there is not a great deal to dislike about it. However, I rather wish that I had been able to actually like it just a bit more.

Performance date: 30 November 2015

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