Forget the looking glass. Blur frontman Damon Albarn and playwright Moira Buffini take us through “Black Mirror” territory in “Wonder.land,” their musical reboot of “Alice in Wonderland.” Reframing Lewis Carroll’s fantasia as an online space — a “LittleBigPlanet”-style role playing game — “Wonder.land” becomes a parable about the status and ethics of our virtual lives. Reworked since the summer, it’s still something of a muddle, but, thanks to director Rufus Norris spectacular staging, designed to the nines, it’s a watchable one — albeit in dire need of a decent score. Albarn’s music hardly registers, and it leaves a big hole at the heart of the musical.
It’s curious. Albarn is one of the best pop songwriters in the world, and if anyone can compose a catchy chorus, he can. Yet the “Wonder.land” score refuses us any simple satisfactions, aiming, instead, for something sung-through and Sondheim-esque. Rather than numbers, Albarn gives us fractions: shards of songs that repeat and entwine — raucous tunes for the earthly realm, dreamier electro for the virtual one. They’re not bad in and of themselves; they’re just the wrong choice. Albarn’s had acclaim in opera (“Doctor Dee,” “Monkey: Journey to the West”), but Buffini’s book demands a different approach. Its archetypal characters need signature songs.
Thirteen-year old Aly (Lois Chimimba) shuts herself in her bedroom and seeks solace in her smartphone — maddening for her mother (Golda Rosheuvel). Bullied in the classroom and on social media, she finds a friendship group in the online space called wonder.land. As her avatar Alice (Carly Bawden) — blonde, blue-eyed and, significantly, white; everything Ally isn’t — she discovers a safe, supportive virtual space of like-minded misfits. It’s rather touching, actually: a stage full of on-screen oddities — muscular dodos, tweedle-twins, a 12-foot handicraft mouse — all confessing their IRL insecurities.
In all this, “Wonder.land” really gets the Internet and, as a family show, it’s admirably even-handed. It shows adults the appeal and utility of online activity, while stressing that parental nags might have some merit as well. Self-expression, e-addiction, cyber-bullying and escapism are all dealt with rather neatly. If anything, Buffini’s book is a bit too tidy in its build up to a big showdown between Aly and her headmistress Miss Maxome (a waspish Anna Francolini), who confiscates Aly’s phone and first adopts, then adapts, her avatar.
Transformed into the self-proclaimed, sword-wielding Red Queen, Alice turns troll – an acute observation of the destructive impulse in those not invested in a particular online culture. It’s on Aly to reclaim her alter ego, not to mention wonder.land itself.
Really, “Wonder.land” the show has been fatally mis-sold. With its bullies and parental break-ups, and, most of all, it’s misunderstood teens, it is basically a huge, ambitious piece of theater for young adults: the biggest, best-looking life lesson on the planet. There’s something cheering about the National devoting such talent and resources to that demographic, so it’s a shame it’s not being sold as such.
Because this a rare piece of theater that stands up to the spectacle of pop concerts and televised events. It looks extraordinary, so transfixing that it holds your attention despite its shortcomings in the storyline and score. Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are magnificent, with one or two (Alice’s tessellated tutu, the skin-tight White Rabbit) all but iconic. Rae Smith’s set is transformed by pixelated projections from 59 Productions, fusing two layers of reality together to dazzling effect, and there’s some superb visual storytelling from choreographer Javier de Frutos. It’s a treat on the eyes. Shame the ears get left behind.