Wonder.land, National Theatre, review: ‘Best avoided’

Carly Bawden as Alice and Lois Chimimba as Aly in wonder.land. Picture: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Carly Bawden as Alice and Lois Chimimba as Aly in wonder.land. Picture: Brinkhoff Mogenburg - Credit: Archant

This virtual Alice in Wonderland is grim and hard work in real life, says Bridget Galton.

To stage a depressing slice of social realism with no memorable tunes on a grey concrete jungle set as Christmas family musical entertainment is brave and challenging of director Rufus Norris, but I couldn’t recommend anyone see it.

My 11-year-old enjoyed this updating of Lewis Carroll’s surreal stories into the world of online gaming more than I did.

‘Weird but good’ was his verdict but then what passes for humour in Moira Buffini’s script is the adolescent thrill of one character telling another to eff off.

Aly, a mixed race teen in a (literally) grey world whose gambling addict mentally ill dad (the mad hatter) has split with her mum (preoccupied with a new baby) is bullied at her new school and fat-shamed online.

In the colourful sanctuary of wonder.land she creates pneumatic blonde ass-kicking avatar Alice and meets an assortment of child misfits sheltering from their awful lives. (The mock turtle is a girl who lives in a bin.)

All this is trowelled on at length and not helped by Damon Albarn’s mishmash score, an assortment of music hall-influenced twangy guitars and plaintive chants.

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‘Life is Shit’ sing the children. ‘Who’s ruining my life? My mum’ spits Lois Chimimba’s self-loathing Aly.

Only Anna Francolini’s power-crazed, lonely headteacher Mrs Manxome’s stand-out number ‘She’s Right’ has the lyrical cleverness and pantomime badness to make you sit up.

In the tea shop, Paul Hilton’s spoon-playing Ian Dury-esque dad is an engaging mix of the damaged and endearing, and Aly’s gay friend Luke has all too rare likability.

When Manxome steals Aly’s avatar and makes her chop off heads, it takes an impressive array of dancing zombies and Aly’s real-life bravery to save the day. A digital Cheshire Cat and hookah-toting tap dancing Caterpillar offer a welcome splash of colour but there’s not enough of it, and the Oprah-esque ‘accept yourself and the bullies will respect you’ ending was just bleuch.

Did I say there were no memorable tunes? The next day my son sang at me ‘Who’s ruining my life?’ Thanks Damon.

Rating: 2/5 stars

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