In the theatre, as in life, the higher you aim, the further you have to fall. So on the one hand, I'd like to applaud the ambitiousness of the National with wonder.land, a new musical co-created by its pop star composer Damon Albarn, playwright Moira Buffini and artistic director Rufus Norris, that puts a brand-new, here-and-now internet-age spin on the Alice in Wonderland story, yet at the same time I have to say how far off the mark the result actually is.
The work is a co-production with Manchester International Festival, who premiered it back in July, and obviously much more work has been done in the intervening period. But while it has been narratively clarified, it also now looks even more exposed on the high, wide panoramic stage of the Olivier, to which it is unsuited. (Since the action is always viewed head-on, and mostly with a big assist from an over-active but impressive video design, it cries out to be staged in the Lyttelton).
As with The Light Princess, the National's last original musical that also featured a pop writer (in that case, Tori Amos) turned theatre composer, this show also features a levitating lead character, and a journey to an alternative, more brightly coloured universe.
The airborne Alice is the onscreen avatar created by Aly, a young girl who is being bullied at school and isolated at home, where her parents have separated as a result of her father's gambling addiction and her mother's energies are consumed by caring for her baby brother (wittily represented here by a constantly puking puppet, though I did wonder whether that was a subliminal critique of the show he was forced to be part of).
Aly finds relief from the real world by using Alice to go on an adventure to wonder.land in an online game of that name, and the two worlds — real and imagined — start to overlap and mesh after Aly's fearsome headmistress Ms Manxome confiscates her phone and then identity to play the game herself.
When Aly and her best friend Luke break into her office to retrieve the phone and the police are summonsed, the policewoman comments, "I'm missing Bake off for this." Audiences may want to substitute their own programme of choice to say they're feeling the same way.
Playwright Moira Buffini has intriguingly adapted Alice in Wonderland to fit into this futuristic, frequently bizarre project that touches on contemporary subjects of real-life and cyber-bullying, as well as dysfunctional family dynamics. But Albarn's songs, encompassing an eclectic range of styles, never really hit a home run to land the sort of killer numbers in the way that Tim Minchin achieved with Matilda.
The hard-working cast is led with a lovely vulnerability by Lois Chimimba as Aly, with Golda Roshuevel and Paul Hilton also truthful as her troubled parents and Enyi Okoronkwo as her gay schoolfriend Luke who also seeks solace in an online game.
Most of the rest of the company play caricatures (Anna Francolini's headmistress) or creatures (the white rabbit, Cheshire Cat, Humpty, Dodo, Mock Turtle etc) whose costumes act to convey their characters as much as they do.
The show is booking at the National to the end of April. I wonder whether there will be an audience to sustain it until then.
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"Norris directs this show – newly reworked for its London run - with extraordinary visual flair."
Claire Allfree for The Telegraph
"This deranged musical feels cluttered, confused and overstuffed."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press