Wonder.land review: Damon Albarn's wonderbland musical is hardly cutting edge

Palace Theatre, Manchester, Manchester International Festival

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The Independent Culture

Damon Albarn set high expectations for his new musical Wonder.land. Perhaps too high.

In the pre-publicity he made much of how the subject of the show – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – haunted his childhood giving him recurring nightmares which have last throughout his life. But parents need not worry about their kids being scared by this opening production of the 2015 Manchester International Festival which transfers to the National Theatre at Christmas and the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

It is premised on an ingenious conceit. Cyberspace is the contemporary equivalent of Lewis Carroll’s wobbly wonderland. The rabbit hole down which Alice falls is available to every modern child via their mobile phone.

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Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Wonder.land

is a place where everyone “can be exactly who you want to be”. The show’s heroine Aly – a mixed race miserable teenager whose parents have separated over her father’s online gambling – creates an Alice avatar in which she is whiter, thinner, blonder and more glamorous than in real life. The interaction between Aly and Alice promises intriguing interplay between aspiration and actuality.

It opens very strongly. Over and around her drab grey bedroom Aly conjures a kaleidoscopic wonderweb world of projected computer animations, psychedelic graphics and weirdly costumed actors beetling about the stage with purposeless speed. It is Lewis Carroll out of Hieronymus Bosch, Magritte, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and the vivid CGI projections of the world of gaming. Rae Smith's spectacular but subtle sets are the real star of this show.

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Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

But the urbane menace of her cartoon Cheshire Cat, seductive and sinister, never finds fulfilment in what follows. Despite a strong scene of internet bullying (which seems straight out of Enda Walsh’s far more chilling play and movie Chatroom) the story provided by the award-winning playwright Moira Buffin proceeds along conventional tramlines. Aly overcomes the bullies through friendship forged in the real rather than the virtual world in which her primary loyalties seem initially located. She reconciles her parents, with the father being painlessly transformed (by an unlikely job in a garden centre) from online addict to cheeky cockney chappie. Screens must be our servant rather than our master, the show neatly concludes.

 

Albarn’s jaunty score is serviceable but it lacks both the edge and the melodic hooks of the songs that made him and Blur famous. The show’s most memorable tune is a pastiche of "Knees Up Mother Brown". Hardly cutting edge. The direction, by Rufus Norris, the National’s new artistic director, is slick, imaginative and pacey. He draws strong performances from Lois Chimimba as the frustrated teenager Aly, from Anna Francolini as her repressed Red Queen headteacher and Sam Archer and Sam Mackay as an inventively-choreographed Tweedle Dum and Dee. Rosalie Craig offers a performance of range switching from good to bad as the avatar.

But the high production values of this show barely disguise the predictability of a plot and score which are less wonderland than wonderbland. It is jolly family entertainment but it lacks the deeper darker dimension it promised and needs.

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