16 Jan 2016: National Theatre, Olivier London, England
Substantially reworked since its less than favourably received premiere at the 2015 Manchester International Festival, Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini’s wonder.land arrives at London’s National Theatre in evidently more robust – though still hardly seamless – shape. Albarn and Buffini’s new musical adapts aspects of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass books into a contemporary context. Here the “rabbit hole” that tempts the bullied teenage heroine, Aly (the likeable, hard-working Lois Chimimba), is the smart-phone to which she’s addicted: “a digital black portal to boundless lands” that opens up new possibilities of identity and experience—and new dangers—for her.
There’s an ingenious element to the connection that the show forges between Carroll’s phantasmagoria and the pleasures and terrors of the web, and Rufus Norris’s production does justice to the analogy at its strongest It’s disappointing, then, that the show is only really satisfying moment by moment and, in particular, that the promise and appeal of its first half isn’t sustained in its messy and incoherent second.
As an ambitious project fashioned from eccentric Victoriana by a playwright and a pop/rock composer, wonder.land has obvious affinities with the National’s last big musical, Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson’s 2013 The Light Princess. Unfortunately, though, wonder.land suffers by the comparison, lacking the emotional depth, musical and lyrical sophistication and cohesive dramatic shapeliness of Amos and Adamson’s vibrant work.
Yet, despite some rickety structuring, several thrown-away elements and a book by Buffini that too often confuses crudity for edginess and psychobabble for emotional insight, the show undoubtedly has some splendours. Rae Smith’s Tephra-meets-Tenniel design is often thrilling in its incorporation of gaming aesthetics and projections by 59 Productions. Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are equally creative, and Javier De Frutos’s elegantly twitchy choreography is also a highlight, especially when Carly Bawden’s superb, shape-throwing Alice is careering after Joshua Lacey’s White Rabbit, a figure who, in this incarnation, looks a whole lot like something that’s just strayed out of a Chris Cunningham video.
The show is at its strongest when these elements combine in a hectic yet streamlined manner. Aly’s seduction into the world of wonder.land, accomplished via a memorably sinister Cheshire Cat projection with the voice of Hal Fowler crooning “Eat me!”, has a captivatingly eerie beauty. A scene in which various avatars all meet—hinting at the lonely and alienated souls behind them—is also ingeniously developed. The appearance of Fowler’s plummy-voiced Caterpillar, whose inquiry “Who are you?” inspires Aly’s identity-quest, is equally exciting. The show reaches its emotional crux in a simply-staged moment when Alice and Aly duet, the former urging the latter to open up about the guilt and trauma she’s experienced.
Like Amos’s densely patterned and classically inflected score for The Light Princess, Albarn’s music for wonder.land has been criticised for its absence of “memorable tunes”, as if instant accessibility was the simple key to constructing compelling musical theatre. By this entirely dubious logic, David Guetta would make a better composer for theatre than Benjamin Britten; critics, perhaps, have had their ears corrupted by jukebox shows such as Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys, in which familiarity with the material is ensured before entrance into the auditorium. In fact, Albarn’s score is often arresting in its mixture of music hall elements and edgy electronics; there are even some elements of the last musical Norris directed, Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s “verbatim”-derived London Road to the jagged confrontations between Aly and her put-upon Mum (excellent Golda Rosheuvel).
What’s more problematic here is that the music doesn’t always advance the plot or contribute to character as strongly as it might. A song such as the biting, angular introductory number given to the school headmistress, Ms. Manxombe (Anna Francolini), is a rarity in its witty and economical conveying of character detail, and the always-stylish Francolini clearly relishes the opportunity to deliver it.
Yet it’s the arc of Francolini’s character that proves to be one of the more problematic aspects ofwonder.land, and that contributes to the show’s unsatisfying second half. Wimping out about really exploring or critiquing teens’ reliance upon the Net, Albarn and Buffini opt instead to pin Aly’s problems on a more obvious antagonist: the spinster Headmistress who’s transformed into a violent and power-crazed “Red Queen”. The anti-feminist recourse to such a shop-worn adversary is dispiriting, revealing the show’s anxiety about female power, and taking the piece into pantomime territory. In concocting a contrived comeuppance for Manxombe, the show even comes close to condoning online shaming, if directed at particular targets, and it’s distinctly unsatisfying that the bullies who’ve tormented Aly are simply let off the hook as a plot convenience.
Norris seems to lose control of the show at the conclusion: a couple of final numbers are miserably staged, the director resorting to a throw-everything-at-the-stage-and-see-what-sticks approach in which maniacally frenzied activity replaces narrative coherence. There’s a lot to enjoy in wonder.land, and the show is certainly a spectacle to see. Yet, for all its felicities, Albarn’s and Buffini’s updating of Carroll’s stories for the online generation ends up feeling weirdly retrogressive, only intermittently doing justice to the anarchic, lyrical and liberating spirit of its source.