Part of Manchester International Festival
Short of picking up the book, gobbling a fistful of LSD and hoping for the best, it’s hard to imagine that you’ll ever see ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ adapted with such jaw-droppingly trippy élan as in this new musical version from Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini. Directed by master of the spectacular Rufus Norris, ‘wonder.land’ is a web-age riff on Lewis Carroll’s 150-year-old classic. It juxtaposes the gothicky real world inhabited by Lois Chimimba’s heroine Aly with the madcap, acid-soaked virtual realm of wonder.land, in which Aly is represented by her avatar Alice (Rosalie Craig).
Brought to life by 59 Productions’s head-spinning projections and astonishing sets and costumes from Rae Smith and Katrina Lindsay, it seriously is as good looking a piece of theatre as you’ll ever see. But in other respects ‘wonder.land’ is not quite there yet.
Troubled Aly’s parents split up after her dad Matt (Paul Hilton) bankrupted them with his online gambling addiction. Now something similar seems to be happening to her: she has become obsessed with wonder.land, which she much prefers to the emotional hardship of real life.
But inevitably, of course, she realises she needs to live in the real world and stand up for herself. It’s an archetypal musical theatre story, told enjoyably. Chimimba is winningly spunky, while Anna Francolini puts in a scene-stealingly vicious turn as her Cruella de Ville-ish head teacher nemesis, Mrs Manxome.
Musically, it’s solid: Albarn’s diverse bag of songs are not big showstoppers, but they underpin the trippy visuals nicely, and there’s a couple of hummable standouts. And it’s to Buffini’s credit that she injects enough sass and feeling into her script to make the faintly patronising premise – hey kids, switch off those internets – not in fact feel like well-meaning lecture from a bunch of middle aged people.
But the show’s greatest strength is the way it looks, and that’s also its biggest problem. On the one hand, the wonder.land sequences are so dementedly ravishing that the musical would feel fairly pointless without them. But perversely, they’re not actually particularly important. Aly may be obsessed with wonder.land, but there’s never any suggestion that she’s physically there, or that her brief visits constitute anything other than a subplot. The Alice avatar has no character of her own, and the prodigiously gifted Craig feels frittered away in her stoppy starty role.
It references Lewis Carroll’s book very cleverly, but this musical would be way more thrilling if Alys actually went to wonder.land. As it is, she just dips her toe in the rabbit hole, and it’s not enough.
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