A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1
If what you’re looking for in the theatre is colours, dance, crazy scenery and exaggerated characters, then wonder.land, the National Theatre’s new, modern, musical version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, is the show for you.
Having read many recent reviews rubbishing this adaptation of the famous book, both in newspapers and in many of the reviews by my fellow #LDNTheatreBloggers. I entered the Olivier Theatre therefore with reasonably low expectations; of a mediocre score, a chaotic set, and a confusing storyline. And these three things were all true. Damon Albarn’s songs are pretty forgettable, the set is insanely cluttered, and the storyline, already confusing in the original book, is even more so with the added layer of modern conceit
However, surprisingly, none of this really mattered! I really enjoyed this musical; it’s not one for the ages, no, I can’t see it transferring or anything, but the experience was never boring – and what’s more, at least it was an experience, and one which is actually surprisingly hard to forget. wonder.land pictures the mythical land of Wonderland as a virtual reality website; as the Cheshire Cat (an exuberant Hal Fowler) loudly proclaims as he whizzes about the stage on his seemingly magical armchair, “www dot wonder dot land….”
Aly is our hero, played with spirit by Lois Chimimba, a shy girl who escapes from her mum and dad’s traumatic separation, three school bullies (amusingly named after the original Alice’s cats Dinah, Mary Ann and Kitty), and her baby brother who won’t stop throwing up, by creating an avatar, ‘Alice’, for herself. It is pointed out by the actors (just in case we didn’t get it ourselves) that this avatar is white, in contrast to Aly’s mixed race heritage.
“I hate me” proclaims Aly with a typically teenage melodrama mixed with truth. “Who are you?” is the repeated question she is asked; problems of self-identity which most can relate to. In fact, the entire musical has a very One-Direction-esque message “You don’t know you’re beautiful” aka ‘be yourself’; be comfortable in your own skin. In this sense, then, it really isn’t particularly ground-breaking at all.
What is fascinating, and the most fun to watch, is the way this world of wonder.land is created on stage, in contrast to the grey and dull world in which Aly, her mother, father, brother and schoolmates live. It’s easy to see why headmistress Mrs Manxome (in the star turn of the night, a hilariously hyperbolic performance from Anna Francolini), after confiscating Aly’s phone, is immediately drawn into this world of colour and creatures and craziness.
There’s the digital purple, widely grinning Cheshire Cat face and the gas-masked, white tutu-ed White Rabbit (Joshua Lacey). There’s the glittering blue Caterpillar (played by Fowler with another golden-toothed grin) and his body, each orb played by a different dancer with some incredible choreography by Javier De Frutos. There are the other avatars; a transvestite dodo, bulimic ballet dancers Dee and Dum, and a giant mouse, who in real life is “a short twat” who can’t get any girls, among others. And, of course, there’s Alice herself, played with bold sweetness by Carly Bawden, who becomes almost like a big sister to both Aly and Mrs Manxome. Enyi Okoronkwo is also convincing as Aly’s only school friend, Luke, battling zombies in a very entertaining number within his own smartphone game.
With all this going on, it’s hardly surprisingly the whole thing gets rather fragmented and chaotic as it continues. This isn’t helped by the fact that all the ‘real world’ scenery and characters stay on stage whilst the larger-the-life avatars invade to create wonder.land. I see why this is done -to make it clear that it’s only a virtual layer over the top of life, but it does just confuse things so much. Another recent production aiming to recreate the chaos of the internet Teh Internet is Serious Business managed this by not crossing the two worlds too much, and director Rufus Norris and set designer Rae Smith would be wise to consider the successful chaos of that production.
This was evening, then, that far exceeded my expectations. Thanks to the National Theatre’s excellent Entry Pass Scheme I ended up with a second row stalls seat for only a fiver so I got to experience the confetti shower (of course there’s a confetti shower) and felt like my eyes and ears were being constantly crowded with new, and even more crazy elements. The actors are excellent – I can’t really think of a weak link – with the three female leads particularly standing out in both voice and character. The music is bland in that you don’t really exit singing one of the songs, but they aren’t so bland as to be boring when actually watching. The set is far too chaotic, especially during the last frantic number, and the overall message is pretty standard musical fare yes. It’s not one for the ages. But I and my friend both had a really enjoyable night out watching wonder.land – and experiencing the fabulous exhibition enter wonder.land downstairs (it has a whole 3D virtual reality music video!) – and so I can’t agree with all those critics who’ve slagged this musical off so much. Moira Buffini and Norris may not have created the next West Side Story, but I highly doubt you’ll forget seeing this colourful, chaotic, crazy production.
wonder.land at the National Theatre: 3/5 stars