National Theatre’s ‘Wonder.land’ review: A feast for the eyes

Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has long been ripe material for modernisation and adaptation, from horror action video games and graphic novels to more faithful television and film renditions.

The most recent of these is this new musical from Blur frontman Damon Albarn, writer Moira Buffini and incumbent National Theatre creative director Rufus Norris.

Wonder.land is led by Aly, an afro-haired teen with separated parents, annoying baby brother and bullies on her case both online and in the concrete jungle of her school. So far so modern. To escape the pressures of real life, the mobile-addicted youngster creates an avatar called Alice in the eponymous wonder.land.

Much like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the show is a feast for the eyes and huge congratulations must go to Rae Smith and 59 Productions for their enticing set and stunning 3D projections respectively. They work cleverly together to provide a sense of cohesion to a frankly bonkers show.

The biggest credit on the backstage team should go to Katrina Lindsay for her stunningly striking costume designs – the grey monotony of city life is heightened to absurdity with high shoulders and long arms, the waterpipe-smoking caterpillar is transformed into a line of giant tinsel covered baubles and Alice’s skirt is bouffant-ed to within an inch of its life. And don’t get me started on her heelless high heels…

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However, the excellent design work can’t disguise what is, overall, a bit of a muddled finished product. There is a lot to take in and a lot of ground covered, and it all ends up feeling rather rushed.

The music is pleasant enough, but only the title song, reappearing later as a reprise, stays in the memory long after it has ended. Paul Hilton as Aly’s dad has a sub-‘Parklife’ number, but I couldn’t tell you what it was about. It was also painfully clear that Aly’s baby brother had been named purely so that a song with sledgehammer drug references could be titled ‘Everybody Loves Charlie’.

That said, the performances throughout were knockout. Special mention should go to Hal Fowler as the MC – his presence was striking and I hope the makers look back and find ways to root his multi-faceted character in a more defined way. The standout performance goes to Anna Francolini as the devilishly sublime headteacher Ms Maxome, drawing laughs from the simplest of looks – absolutely stunning to watch.

Despite its shortcomings and faults, I couldn’t help but come away from the theatre grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Yes it was totally nuts and maybe the accompanying bolts are a bit loose in places too, but if you’re looking for an enjoyable alternative to pantomime season then you could do a lot worse that going down this particular rabbit hole.

Performed on Thursday 10 December 2015 at National Theatre in London.

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