Music: Damon Albarn
Book &Lyrics: Moira Buffini
Director: Rufus Norris
Reviewer: Iain Sykes
wonder.land, a new musical take on Lewis Carroll’s classic tale with music by Damon Albarn, launches the 2015 Manchester International Festival at the Palace Theatre. As he did with 2011’s MIF offering, Dr Dee, Albarn teams up with director Rufus Norris with this time Moira Buffini providing the book and lyrics.
The wonderland of this production sees the smartphone as a modern day rabbit hole into which schoolgirl Aly (Lois Chimimba) escapes from her broken family and school bullies, to the online game wonder.land where she chooses to create a character of the familiar blue dressed, blonde haired Alice to hide behind. Once inside this darkly addictive game, the boundaries of reality and fantasy begin to blur as she follows the White Rabbit (an agile Rob Compton) and meets other players of the game, each one inhabiting their own character to forget their own perceived faults.
Rae Smith’s set design and some visually stunning animation by 59 Productions create the most surreal of worlds, not to mention Katrina Lindsay’s sumptuous costumes for the inhabitants of the wonder.land game. Albarn’s music though, while complementing the setting, feels like it does so more as incidental music against this background, rather than a musical score. There’s hardly a tune that lodges into the mind on first listening. In fact, the most striking and memorable song of the evening seems to be a rip-off of that old time song, The Laughing Policeman at the end of the first act.
Star performances abound all over the stage from a super cast. Rosalie Craig brings real character to the avatar Alice and, in the real world of the musical, Lois Chimimba as Aly and Golda Rosheuvel and Paul Hilton as her battling parents are all powerful in representing the pain of their family life. Hal Fowler is a charismatic Cheshire Cat and Caterpillar, while Anna Francolini shows the meanest of streaks as the ever so slightly deranged Dahl-esque headmistress who confiscates Aly’s phone and begins to steer the game down a very different route.
Visually, wonder.land the musical is a huge, gorgeous assault on the senses. Musically, it feels as though it could be stronger and once the manic, pacy, surrealism has gone, it does seem like it fades to a conclusion somewhat. As a whole though, wonder.land is heading along the right lines to live up to its name, even if it’s not quite there yet.
Runs until 12th July | Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg