If you’re having turkey for Christmas this year remember not to over-stuff it.
This offering at the National may serve as a timely reminder.
wonder.land is Lewis Carroll‘s Alice for the internet age but it overdoes things by cramming too much in and desperately trying to tick too many PC boxes. What comes across is overcrowded and by attempting to be au courant ends up feeling slightly dated.
Aly (Lois Chimimba) is a mixed-race teenager from a broken home, bullied at school and on social media and insecure about her physical appearance until she discovers an online world where she can create a new life for herself as an avatar, Alice (Carly Bawden). Imagine The Matrix with a touch of The Nether burdened with a dressing of unremarkable music and songs.
As a member of the audience you may find yourself wishing to create your own avatar and disappear into another world entirely. We certainly did.
Damon Albarn is responsible for the music. Moira Buffini of Handbagged fame (which coincidentally we revisited in its touring version at Richmond last week and enjoyed it tremendously, much more than on our first viewing) has come up with the book and lyrics. Rufus Norris directs.
You can’t say that Rae Smith‘s grubbily dreary grey sets don’t suit Aly’s depressing life and world. The colour is injected by an excess of projected visuals from 59 Productions, which are impressive initially, but swiftly outstay their welcome and left us longing for some real wonder and enchantment and what we would call scenery. Katerina Lindsay‘s imaginatively wacky costumes are left to do the heavy lifting (and some are so huge they must be heavy to lift). But even the Caterpillar (Hal Fowler)’s sparkly green Mr Blobby of an outfit with a chorus line of more green blobs misses a chance to join together properly and form a full insect. Javier De Frutos’s patchy choreography seems thwarted by the costumes throughout. Though Bawden must be admired and congratulated for managing to stand, let alone walk, in her Act 1 shoes.
You do have to feel for a cast having to work with such material, let alone the shoes. The wonderful Anna Francolini makes most of her role as Ms Manxome, Aly’s school head. But is she really that evil? Ok, apart from stealing the show her character also indulges in some petty theft, but it’s not exactly of Brink’s-Matt proportion. She’s just trying to instill punctuality in her pupils and stop them using their phones at school. What message does this send out? Breaking into Aly’s virtual world and taking over characters that don’t really exist doesn’t make us care or make her Matilda‘s Miss Trunchbull.
The interval came a little later than planned after a huge kerfuffle in the circle as a woman was taken ill, leading to the show being stopped for about 15 minutes. This gave Andrew a chance to sum things up as “charmless” and hope that if the stoppage was for good we’d be able to get our money back. It wasn’t just us. A boy was overheard saying “It’s just a girl playing video games”. Quite.
Sadly the show was allowed to continue and the cast struggled gamely on. Paul Hilton, as Aly’s father, is saddled with an Act 1 closing number – a take on the Mad Hatter’s tea party – that was all over the place; a “comedy” number something akin to a cross pollination of “Knees Up Mrs Brown” and “The Laughing Policeman”. Act 2 seems him come onto an empty stage singing about talking to the walls. Phil thought of Chicago‘s “Mr Cellophane”. If only.
One number, “Everybody loves Charlie”, (Charlie is Aly’s brother played by a puppet prone to vomiting) elicited sniggers for the wrong reasons. Or maybe it was the right reasons? Cue the release of virtual balloons (there’s a real balloon throughout) which, along with the 11 shopping trolleys that appeared near the beginning of the show, allowed Phil to occupy his time ticking the boxes on his card of theatrical bêtes noires.
The switching between the real and virtual worlds becomes increasingly tiresome and confusing. A climactic showdown between the headmistress and other members of the cast climbing grey towers was shambolic.
A kindly gentleman offered us a boiled sweet during the unexpected break in the show but misheard our comment after the curtain call thinking we’d said “What a great Christmas show”, we felt cruel correcting him as he’d loved it.
If you think this we are harsh, we can report that the people in front of us took the sensible decision of opting out at the interval and the comments made by other friends there on the same night as us are largely unrepeatable. One remark by this woman was as hilarious as it was tasteless. We couldn’t possibly print it here, much as we’d love to.
The show was at the Palace Theatre in Manchester (it was commissioned by Manchester International Festival, the NT and the Théâtre du Châtelet) earlier in the year so presumably improvements have been made and as this was a preview more work will be done. Good luck with that.
wonder.land was a huge disappointment for us, but if you really, really must it can be seen at the National over the next few months before it moves to Paris in June. Further comment on that would be innapropriate.