Lewis Carroll's Alice Goes Digital in the Ambitious New Musical ''

Promo still of

Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini’s musical is set in the contemporary world of social media, RPGs, and mean-girls, with results that veer from ingenious to awkward.

City: London, England
Venue: National Theatre, Olivier
Date: 2016-01-16

Substantially reworked since its less than favourably received premiere at the 2015 Manchester International Festival, Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini’s 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, has obvious affinities with the National’s last big musical, Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson’s 2013 The Light Princess. Unfortunately, though, 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, 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 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, 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, 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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.