“Who are you…?” This familiar question is at the centre of the most recent and profound musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s much-loved tale, Alice in Wonderland. Created by Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris, wonder.land is set in a social media-obsessed world where the young heroine of the story agonises over identity and learning to accept herself.
As live performance is merged with impressive digital technology, wonder.land tells the tale of disgruntled teenager Aly (Lois Chimimba), who immerses herself in an online game (pronounced wonder dot land) to escape the troublesome school bullies and her dysfunctional family. The line between reality and gaming quickly becomes blurred, as Aly’s obsession with wonder.land starts to consume her everyday life.
She feels a deep connection with her online avatar, called Alice (Carly Bawden), who is petite, blonde and in Aly’s eyes, “perfect” and the antithesis of real life Aly. In wonder.land, Aly meets other misfits who will actually listen to her and make her feel loved as her mum (played brilliantly by Witney White) is constantly preoccupied with new baby brother, Charlie.
Damon Albarn’s music, while not exactly catchy, is rich and fascinating. He blends electronic modern day sounds of beeps and bloops with more traditional warbles that echo London music halls of the past. The disjointed tunes beautifully underpin the online gaming sequences as the balletic White Rabbit darts about the stage chased by delicate and animated Alice. The lyrics tap into teenage angst as the school children chant, “Who’s ruining my life? My mum!”
Undoubtedly, Rae Smith’s design and 59 Productions’ projections are at the heart of this musical. The audience becomes lost in an illusory world of digital reality, which though very impressive, at times overshadows the on-stage action. The kaleidoscopic graphics and zombie video games become overwhelming and trippy but serve to illustrate the engulfing and relentless nature of cyber space. It also seems like every item of the set has been put on wheels which is rather satisfying to watch as chairs, tables and beds glide effortlessly across the stage.
Lois Chimimba is engaging and loveable as Aly and the chemistry between her and her gambling addict father (Paul Hilton) is emotive and raw. However, the standout performance of the piece is without a doubt Anna Francolini as foreboding headmistress, Ms Manxome. This delightfully evil, Queen of Hearts-esque baddie confiscates Aly’s phone, hacks into her wonder.land account, hijacks her avatar and mayhem ensues in the online world. Francolini is an absolute joy to watch, not quite cliché pantomime but also so fantastically evil, you could just imagine booing and hissing every time she exits the stage.
wonder.land certainly carries a touching and relevant message at its core, however parts of it feel a little confused and out of date. This is understandable with the subject matter of digital technology being something that changes so rapidly and “cool” online words used a few years ago would make the teenagers of 2015 cringe and roll their eyes. Nevertheless, this production is a mighty spectacle and carries an infectious energy that is well worth a watch.
by Heather Doughty
wonder.land runs at the National (Olivier Theatre) until April 30 2016
National Theatre, Upper Ground, London SE1 9PX
Book Office: 020 7452 3000
59productions can be found on twitter here