When Alice fell down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel, the portal was all too literal. There was a rabbit, on his way to Wonderland, and he had a hole. Beautiful in its simplicity. But what would a modern-day rabbit hole equivalent be? How to update the portal to Wonderland for 2015?
And therein lies the genius of Wonder.land, the 21st century remix of a perennial family favourite by Moira Buffini and Damon Albarn. In 2015, the obvious portal to a world of wonder, colour, craziness and danger is the mobile phone in everybody's pocket. Through the screen on our mobile devices, we can be transported anywhere and everywhere, through the magic of Japanese technology and the world wide web. There are no limits to where you can go and what you can see on a mobile phone, which is why Wonder.land runs with this so brilliantly.
Here, Wonderland is like one of those "second life" games where you forge a whole new character and personality for yourself through the use of an avatar, which represents you in the digital domain. Aly, bullied at school and unhappy in her own skin, like all self-respecting teenagers, creates a Wonderland avatar called Alice so that she can have a more exciting, colourful, interesting existence beyond the drabness of her home and school life. She designs Alice to be the perfect representation of herself that she can imagine, and that turns out to be precisely like John Tenniel's classic illustrations from the original book. The fact Aly is mixed-race is not glossed over either - why would a biracial teenager choose a blonde, white Victorian girl as her aesthetic ideal? To be honest, why shouldn't she, but the fact Aly wants to be loved in her online world, to be the most popular, casts light on the world in which she is growing up. Equality comes in many forms, not just human rights.
Lois Chimimba is delightful as Aly, portraying a troubled girl lacking in confidence but who is empowered by what her digital self can achieve. It would be all too easy to have Aly as a typical bolshy kid, but what we get is a more realistic portrayal of the emotional fragility of adolescence. She has big shoes to fill, but Chimimba does a fantastic job. It's not easy pretending to be a 12-year-old child when you're not 12 or a child.
|Rosalie Craig as "evil" Alice|
Hal Fowler's Caterpillar is wonderfully, perfectly bizarre, his body made of giant balloons, while Sam Mackay and Sam Archer as Dee and Dum bring some lovely juvenile athleticism to the stage. Archer's history with choreographer Matthew Bourne shines through, and both dancers give charismatic, energetic performances. Likewise the incidental characters such as the Dodo, the Lizard, the Mouse and the surreally realised Mock Turtle, and Aly's vindictive school bullies.
I was also very impressed by Enyi Okoronkwo as Aly's friend Luke. He has a natural charisma and seems at ease on the stage, and gives the character charm and humour. Is Luke gay or not? Does he even know, or care? It riffs on another of the production's socially topical themes, of identity, how it can be used to define you against your wishes, and how it can be stolen by others to amoral ends.
Stealing the show from under everybody's noses, though, is Anna Francolini as villainous villainess Ms Manxome. Dressed like Cruella de Vil and played with breathless excess, Manxome is a monstrous antagonist along the lines of Maleficent, the Wicked Witch of the West or even Karen from US sitcom Will and Grace. Ever seen Michelle Gomez's Missy in Doctor Who? Francolini takes that, cranks it up to 11 and simply owns the stage with what is a delightfully hissable baddie. She's beyond camp.
Moira Buffini's story has been criticised for being slight, but it's not as if Carroll's original was exactly multi-layered. I'd argue there's more story in Wonder.land than there is in its source text, and it makes the Victorian classic eminently relevant to today's audience, especially the younger ones. Our children seem to lead their lives through a filter of technology. Their phones are like accessories, attachments, apps for their very existence. This musical takes that and magnifies it to show that as well as all the fun of games and social media and selfies, our youngsters can be directly and adversely affected by this technology too. They can be bullied, demoralised and shamed remotely by people they've never met. Aly lacks confidence, and you have to wonder whether it is wholly the fault of her adolescent paranoia, or the product of a life lived in tandem with the digital world.
|Rosalie Craig as "good" Alice with Sam|
Mackay and Sam Archer as Dee and Dum
And the music? It's unapologetically, uncompromisingly and thankfully very typical Damon Albarn. He swings from pop to dance to introspective so effortlessly, always stamping his indelible eccentric style on the music, and it is obvious that Albarn is the perfect creative partner for this project. He even throws in some of his beloved music hall at the top of Act 2. And while Albarn doesn't perform or appear in the production himself, his presence is felt in the character of Aly's dad Matt. Paul Hilton even sounds a bit like Albarn.
Wonder.land has been met with some mixed reviews by the critic glitterati. It's been accused of being garbled, disjointed, incoherent even. I just don't get that. What I saw was a joyous story of what it's like to be a youngster growing up in this digital age, enhanced by some astonishing creativity and bold, in-yer-face music from one of the finest songwriters in Britain today. When Lewis Carroll wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland 150 years ago, it was first and foremost to entertain children. Wonder.land is still doing that today, but with a social message at its heart and with fun as its watchword. You can't help but be amazed and entertained by this musical. It might not age particularly well, but it was created for now, today's world. Let someone else bring it up to date in 2165 if they like, but for now, this brash, extravagant, eye-popping extravaganza speaks to the right people in the right way. I dare you to leave without a smile on your face.
Writers: Damon Albarn (music) and Moira Buffini (book and lyrics), based on characters created by Lewis Carroll
Director: Rufus Norris
Cast: Sam Archer (Dum); Lois Chimimba (Aly); Rob Compton (White Rabbit); Rosalie Craig (Alice); Ivan De Freitas (Dodo); Luke Fetherston (Keiran; Lizard); Hal Fowler (Cheshire Cat; Caterpillar); Anna Francolini (Ms Manxome); Lorraine Graham (Ensemble); Paul Hilton (Matt); Karina Hind (Kitty); Holly James (Hedgehog); Sam Mackay (Dee); Daisy Maywood (Mary Ann); Enyi Okoronkwo (Luke); David Page (Mouse); Golda Rosheuvel (Bianca); Cydney Uffindell-Phillips (Mock Turtle); Witney White (Dinah).
Performed at Palace Theatre, Manchester (as part of the Manchester International Festival), July 2nd to 12th, 2015. Performance reviewed: July 11th, 2015 (matinee). Transfers to National Theatre, London, from November 27th, 2015.
Wonder.land website (retrieved July 13th 2015)
Wonder.land on Manchester International Festival website (retrieved July 13th 2015)
Wonder.land on National Theatre website (retrieved July 13th 2015)
Audience reaction to Wonder.land (retrieved July 13th 2015)
Wonder.land trailer (retrieved July 13th 2015)
Damon Albarn and Lois Chimimba interviewed about Wonder.land (retrieved July 13th 2015)