Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s well-loved ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’, wonder.land is the much anticipated musical child of Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris. Premiering in Manchester last June it has transferred to the National for a longer season, and aimed to put wrong the critics who were so underwhelmed by its initial conception earlier this year.
Damon Albarn’s songs are hit and miss; anyone coming to the National hoping for a musical soundtrack in any way reminiscent of Blur or Gorillaz will leave disappointed. Ideally I would namecheck a few that I liked here and a couple that weren’t so good, but as the song list has been omitted from the programme and is nowhere to be seen online I’ll have to settle for some abstract descriptions; the act one opener got things off to a good start, and the final fight song from act two was also impressive. However the rest of Albarn’s tracks stayed firmly in the ordinary, sticking to an unremarkably generic formula that didn’t really get much past mildly enjoyable.
By far the most impressive element of wonder.land is its production. Rufus Norris’ first musical as the new artistic director of the National stands him in good stead for the years to come, and if he can match this with a show better than wonder.land a hit will be on the cards. Rae Smith’s design is stunning, filling the vast stage of the National’s Olivier with huge projections and a whole host of exciting set pieces. Particularly enchanting was the bus made out of metal cages and the huge towers that emerged from the stage during the show’s final scene.
Costume design comes from Katrina Lindsay has a big part to play in creating the illusion of wonder.land. Immensely creative and a joy to witness, discovering what curious costume will adorn a character next is part of what saved the show from being entirely subpar. To describe the costumes would be to spoil the best part of the show, but just look out for the caterpillar and Alice’s shoes in act 1.
In terms of casting wonder.land can’t really be criticised – Carly Bawden was excellent as Alice (although after seeing her in Assassins earlier this year I wasn’t expecting anything less), Paul Hilton was equal parts funny and strangely endearing as Aly’s estranged Father Matt and Lois Chimimba is a future star. The only disappointment was that I really struggled to hear what the cast were singing at some points – perhaps down to where I was sitting, but that’s really no excuse for a theatre like the National not to sort out their sound levels!
Personally, I think the show’s biggest shortcoming was its script. I found a lot of the dialogue really cringey – most glaringly the confrontations between Aly and the school bullies which essentially felt like what a 40 year old thinks teenagers must speak like (in reality it was so unbearably unrealistic that I could hardly contain myself from sniggering). A real shame as the concept behind wonder.land and the execution of the production and casting are all top class. It’s just a shame it’s let down by arguably the two most vital elements in a musical; the music and the text.
Though it won’t be running for years to come, wonder.land is still an enjoyable watch. Go to be amazed by an unimaginable and exciting new world but don’t expect to leave humming the songs for weeks to come.