A few minutes before the start of the show the lights have gone down and the woman next to me is pleading with the usher (who has asked her to switch her laptop off) to let her finish her Facebook messaging. When the usher leaves the woman carries messaging from within her handbag in the dark as the show begins. A fitting prelude to a story about the combination of online and real life that permeates how we live today.
wonder.land is a musical written by Damon Albarn (now on his third visit to Manchester International Festival) with book and lyrics by Moira Buffini, and direction by Rufus Norris – the latest head honcho of the National Theatre. Set and stage design is by the National Theatre’s War Horse team: Rae Smith (designer), 59 Productions (projections), and Paule Constable (lighting); and Katrina Lindsay designed the costumes.
It starts off in a grey tower-block world where the rain permanently falls and the heroine Aly is a 12-year-old who escapes her surroundings ( a grim flat and a mother who’s more interested in the new baby fathered by a man with gambling problems who has left her) by visiting wonder.land.com, a Second Life-style world where you can be who you want to be via the creation of self-designed avatars.
She creates an Alice familiar to us from the Tenniel drawings. This Alice appears courtesy of huge CGI projections – the bright colours of which contrast vividly with the grey ‘real’ world. These projections function as the screens on mobile phones, allowing us to see what the characters see, and their scale emphasise just how immersive this interaction can be. The heroine is bullied online and onstage, and the Miss Jean Brodie-style headmistress confiscates her phone and adopts her avatar in a manner that will ultimately lead to no good – it’s not just the kids who are vulnerable to the temptations of the internet.
The stagecraft is excellent. The projections dominate the huge stage and a series of backdrops on wheels move around restlessly, creating new openings into different spaces and occasionally depositing actors in relevant positions. Characters from the story appear in the projections and onstage (although they didn’t seem to know what do with the caterpillar, which came on walking forwards through a doorway then went off walking backwards through the doorway before we had a chance to see the costume in full).
But despite the adventurous design and staging, the show is essentially a West-End musical with a series of songs that aren’t really Albarn at his best. The plot has echoes of Gorillaz’ Demon Days album with its strong sense of teenage melancholy, but the songs don’t capture that same mood.
wonder.land takes the wildly inventive, un-pin-downable Alice in Wonderland story and reduces it to a worthy soap-opera with a message. I can see that the creators realised that they could be contributing to a middle-aged moral panic about the over-use of computers if they weren’t careful, so wanted to add something less preachy. But that point arrives with such an obvious kerr-lunk that it almost appears to be an afterthought.
The best scene is when the bullied Aly meets a bullied boy in the girl’s toilet. It has no connection to the Alice story, it has none of the visual pyrotechnics of the rest of the show, and is just a well-written, well-acted, witty exchange that rings true.
wonder.land comes to the National Theatre in London for the 2015–2016 Christmas season.