Benet Catty Productions (WE 2016)

Jan 5, 2016

National Theatre

2016 was the worst year for new musicals in London this century. So many promising nights out proved to be disappointments or out-and-out turkeys.

My hopes for the National Theatre's contemporary take on Lewis Carroll, WONDER.LAND (pronounced wonder-dot-land) were as low as a rabbit hole. I am one of the few people of my generation not to be a fan of the show's composer Damon Albarn of Blur - I tend to like pop singers who sing in tune. Rufus Norris, the director, has done lots of brilliant work (not least the brilliant verbatim-musical London Road and the great much-toured revival of Cabaret), but his recent production of Everyman at the National was the worst production I'd seen there in over twenty years. And Moira Buffini, a playwright I much admire, had never written a musical before. So the omens were not positive.

It took three minutes for me to change my mind.
WONDER.LAND's central premise is that the rabbit hole of Carroll's 1865 fable is now a mobile phone - that the contemporary child escapes into a world of make believe and danger and joy through their palm held electronic device. But Alice (now Aly)'s villainous headmistress Ms Manxome confiscates her phone, steals her identity (i.e. her online Alice character) and makes online-Alice a villain in this nebulous imaginary electronic world. Aly has to try and make the world that's being destroyed down the rabbit hole right again.

First thing's first. If you don't know what an avatar is or you think social media is a flash in the pain or you think chat rooms are only occupied by sad people in rain coats then WONDER.LAND is not for you. Sadly this group apparently includes many of the London critics who have found this extraordinary and imaginative new musical unaccountably baffling. Anyone under 40 will have no problem with it. Anyone under 25 will assume it was written for them.

WONDER.LAND is dazzlingly (even dizzyingly) realised by Rufus Norris with designer Rae Smith (of War Horse fame) and 59 Productions' all encompassing projections. Lots of productions in the last ten years have dazzled with projections (Curious Incident, Ghost) but WONDER.LAND's are so advanced and all-encompassing that it is hard to imagine how anyone will ever be able to produce it without them. The online world is painted in garish hues and extravagant pantomime-on-speed colours; the 'real life' that Aly struggles with is all greys and blacks.

For all the razzle-dazzle and contemporary urgency of WONDER.LAND, though, it would be wrong to suggest that it is ground breaking as a written piece. The idea of exploring two parallel worlds of fantasy and reality has existed since Kander and Ebb, and the big theme - the struggle to be truer to oneself - is what every musical is ultimately about.

Albarn's score has hints of his Blur days but is otherwise a mix of musical theatre (albeit heavier on recitative than arias), ska and pop. It's a rare contemporary musical that gives the best duet to the parents of the central character. And, particularly in the over complicated second half, there are plenty of melodies one might hum along to. And of course, as he's not in it himself, there's plenty of tuneful singing.

In a cast dominated by funky young things, Lois Chimimba as Aly gives a terrific unselfconsciously contemporary performance, wittily helped by her three best friends (Stephanie Rojas, in particular, managing to look cool even in a onesie with one leg rolled up) and her gay best friend Luke (Enyi Okoronkwo) has great comic timing. Dad Matt (ever-brilliant Paul Hilton) is terrific, not least for taking his life in his hands by running over moving school desks. And Anna Francolini - a longtime standout performer in lots of shows - is an absolute dazzler as the wicked queen/headmistress, giving easily the funniest performance in a musical this year.

The show is not perfect. Hal Fowler (another West End stalwart) is ill-served by the writing of his MC character; the second act is 15 minutes too long and the first act needs a couple more hummable tunes.

But compared to every other new musical that opened in London in 2015, WONDER.LAND is a magical night out. It is a wonderful explosion of classic concerns and contemporary imagination, all the more impressive for being created by a team much older than its target audience yet not being in the least patronising.

You may or may not like it, and the subject may or may not resonate with your own life. But you can't fail to be dazzled by the imagination on show here and its capacity to speak to (and about) a non-traditional audience.

As a mirror to our contemporary concerns, this wonder really lands.

Originally posted: Places & Faces Magazine, February 2016