If you have ever wondered if it was possible to imagine a mash-up between EastendersAlice in WonderlandH. R Puffnstuff and outtakes from recording sessions for Blur’s Parklife, head to the Olivier Theatre at the National.

For now playing there is Rufus Norris’ production of wonder.land, a new musical created by Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Norris himself (music by Albarn, book and lyrics by Buffini) with choreography by Javier De Frutos and musical supervision by Tom Deering. It’s a mess, musically and dramaturgically speaking, but it nevertheless has its charm and, in parts, it is quite breath-taking to behold.

Part of the problem is that it wonder.land does not seem to know exactly what it wants to be. Two quite different worlds come into collision. The real world (a grey, stark suburbia of routine and boredom) and the fantasy world of wonder.land, a role-playing App into which people are seduced into losing themselves where anything and everything can (and pretty much does) happen.

The multi-faceted multi-coloured look of the fantasy world, for the most part, suggests wonder.land has young persons in mind, although there are some instances of language and a sudden decapitation or two (not to mention some strong sexual references) which jar. Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this is not.

wonderland27nov2015twelveThe real world sequences are pure teen angst soap, focussing on issues – teenage life, sexuality, peer pressure, bullying, divorce child syndrome, anxiety, anger and reconciliation. The central theme running through these sequences is “Who am I?”, a question faced by both the real-world heroine, Aly, and her out-and-sort-of-proud gay, zombie-loving friend, Luke. More accurately, perhaps, the question answered by the narrative is “Who do I want to be?”

The “Who am I?” theme is one that permeates Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. There Alice ponders that question in outlandish and uncertain scenario after outlandish and uncertain scenario. In wonder.land, though, the question is in Aly’s mind because of the mundane and harsh reality of her ordinary life, at home with her now-single mother and baby brother, occasionally seeing her gambling addict father (and missing him) and struggling to cope with the ghastly behaviour of the “cool” kids at school.
But when Aly escapes into the world of her App and lives through the adventures of her avatar, Alice, the mood is ethereal, richly psychedelic, bizarre, topsy-turvy and occasionally risqué. It looks like a place where youngsters would be happy, but it doesn’t sound like one and some of the images are startling and provocative. In the end, the App world seems more attuned to adults (especially those who may have had wayward teenage years) than to youngsters, while the real world story and setting seems more attuned to youngsters than adults.
To an extent, this dichotomy exists in Alice in Wonderland itself, but reading something brings with it the limits of the imagination of the reader. There are no limits to the imaginations at work here and the workings of those imaginations are thrust upon the audience, ready or not. Some of it works, in an amiable and charming way – other sections are bleaker, less engaging, possibly more to “have impact” than to contribute to an overall sense or pattern of storytelling. (Heaven only knows what the two tykes in front of me made of it all, but their protective mother seemed disarmed.)
Some of the story doesn’t make sense, but that is not fatal. Some of the narrative drags along while other sections are intensely captivating – on the whole, the mercurial magic on display, in terms of costume, setting and character, in the App world is vastly enjoyable. The big set pieces, like the Tea Party, the glorious appearance of the Caterpillar, and the final confrontation between Alice’s friends and the Teacher-Who-Would-Be –Red-Queen are terrific, and De Frutos provides choreography that is enigmatic and sensual, adding to the exotic tone of everything that happens in the world within the App.
Clever use of delightfully animated projections is a key factor in the visual successes here. The projections, from 59 Productions, are huge and beguiling, with colourful images of creatures and objects blobbing along in a kind of lava-lamp way. The Cheshire cat is particularly entrancing and there is a constant, and unnerving, sense of familiarity about it despite the unique nature of the projections. Although entirely modern, the sense of the psychedelic sixties seems ingrained. Clever indeed. Rae Smith’s smart set design ensures the projections are a seamless and well integrated part of the visual feast.
Addiction is a key theme explored in the work. Aly and Luke are addicted to their electronic screens, finding refuge from the realities of life there. Aly’s dad, Matt, is addicted to gambling. Ms Manxome is addicted to power. Those who attend Aly’s school seem addicted to “being cool”. Several characters seem addicted to violence (even if, in the case of Aly’s little brother, that manifests itself only in violent vomiting). The psychedelic projections, with their LSD dream feel, play into this notion of addiction in a subversive but fascinating way.

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Albarn’s score is moody and occasionally catchy, but it doesn’t attempt to create a musical language for the piece. This is no Blur album full of buoyant thematically linked tunes. Songs come and go, some progress story and character, some just happen. Some peter out, some have rousing, explosive end points. There are some great phrases of true beauty, but much of the score seems across the line from musical theatre, straying more into classical contemporary or modern opera. Neither boring nor thrilling, there is a lot of music, but little of it strikes one as memorable. Buffini’s lyrics do the job, but, again, there is nothing thrilling there.
Generally speaking, all the performers are great. Hal Fowler is very impressive as the MC, his richly toned voice booming impressively throughout. His work as the Cheshire Cat and the Caterpillar account for the two best moments in the production. He is well served by Katrina Lindsay’s fabulously imaginative and whacky costume designs, as, indeed, is everyone in the company.
Carly Bawden is as terrific as ever as Alice, the avatar Aly regards as the perfect release for her fears and frustrations. She flies, she prettily engages with strange and exotic creatures, and she embodies the real truths of those controlling her – so when Anna Francolini’s fearsome and hilarious Ms Manxome (a rip-snorter of a full throttle performance) confiscates Aly’s phone for a frolic of her own, Bawden demonstrates her prowess by displaying the struggle Alice encounters in changing from (essentially) good to (essentially) evil. She sings splendidly throughout, with a true and tender voice that can easily ring out when necessary. Francolini also sings up a storm, but one with viciously comic overtones. They are both exuberant in precisely the right way for their characters.

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Lois Chimimba, Golda Roshheuvel and Paul Hilton are terrific as the family unit broken thanks to Dad Matt’s gambling. Their relationship seems real and the pain/love that exists within the triangle is keenly portrayed. Enyi Okoronkwo delights as Luke and provides a good contrasting influence for Aly, opening her eyes to more emboldened paths for the future. The heart of the musical is in safe hands with these four. Each brings vocal assuredness to their part of the score.
The whole ensemble works hard and when at full throttle in the App world are endlessly engaging. The superb costumes and quirky staging/choreography assist in no small measure, but it is the enlivening of each individual character – whether Card, or Tweedledee/dum, White Rabbit, Mock Turtle – that turns on the individual skills of the artists and, in this respect, the production is awash with eccentricity and imagination.
But, in the end, there are both too many ideas at play in wonder.land and not enough. The whole piece needs tightening as the narrative shape is too loose and confused. Equally, some sections could do with more attention, more detail. Plot points could be refined and the score needs significant revision – as it stands, the production is more pot-pourri than perfection.
This is the second big-scale original musical the National Theatre has staged in recent years, The Light Princessbeing the other. Both have featured outstanding concepts and designs for the staging and costumes; neither have come close to getting it right in terms of book and score, despite the individual attributes and abilities of the performers.
Original musicals must and should be pursued by the National Theatre – but maybe it’s time for the National to commission a new musical from an established team? Stiles and Drewe perhaps? Or to put some money and effort into an existing musical which has not had a full scale life yet – The Dreaming? The Go-Between? Return of the Soldier?
Who knows? Sondheim might just be waiting for a call.

 

Three stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.