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Review: wonder.land, National Theatre

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wonder.land is the new musical at The National Theatre, covering family breakdown, bullying, teenage self-awareness, iPhones, class, race, and gambling, all through the medium of Alice in Wonderland. Sounds like a lot? Arts Editor Fran Lowe went along to find out. 

We all read Alice in Wonderland when we were growing up. I also read it recently as a part of my degree- so when I got the opportunity to spontaneously see wonder.land at the National Theatre, I couldn’t wait to jump straight back into that curious magical world.

The gist of the story is a modern reworking of Lewis Carroll’s tale: Aly, a teenage misfit who has recently started at a new city-centre school, finds solace in a game on her phone: she discovers the world of www.wonder.land, and creates her avatar, Alice. Alice is white, skinny, popular, blonde, pretty, kind- everything that Aly believes she is not. Aly sings “I hate being me”, a harsh view into teenage self-hatred, and a reminder of the difficulties that we all faced at that age when we didn’t really know who we were or who we wanted to be.

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So, Aly enters wonder.land, a place she can escape to through her phone, even in the back of her maths lessons. The visuals are delightful: probably the best on-stage computer graphics I’ve ever seen, and as Alice falls down the virtual rabbit hole, you really do fall with her. The combination of graphics, live-action, swelling music, and some sensational voices, is really overwhelming- and I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not.

The visuals really do emphasise the power of the online world and how easily our online and offline lives can blur together and become indistinguishable. And it’s through this that director Rufus Norris really addresses the question that plagues teenagers, even more so now that we have our online personalities to worry about too: who am I?

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As the play builds, however, the combination of intense graphics, swirling music, dancers, costumes, glitter (yep, if you’re in the front row, prepare to come away a bit sparkly), does all become a bit much. Some critics have used the word “frenzied”, which I think is perhaps a little harsh- while I see their point, I think it’s a deliberate frenzy, demonstrating the confusion and the chaos in the minds of the characters, as well as the utter madness of wonderland itself. It does become difficult to know where to look, and perhaps it is overdone- but I can see what the play’s creators were doing here.

As Aly, our young protagonist, Lois Chimimba is excellent. You really feel for her as she struggles to come to terms with the way her life is changing as a result of her parents’ collapsed marriage, her new school with its bitchy girls, and the general pressures of growing up. She also has an excellent voice that you really don’t expect to emerge from a stroppy teenager. Her alter-ego, Alice, played by Carly Bawden, was excellent in a different way: she was great at being computer generated, and also danced in the highest heels I’ve ever seen in my life.

Anna Francolini shines as the evil headmistress Mrs Manxome. Her Cruella DeVil-style character is a classic villain, evil laugh and all. The other characters in wonder.land were very well portrayed, with modern takes on Carroll’s traditional animals. The Mock Turtle in particular made me laugh, and there are glimmers throughout of the tale that we all remember so well. It’s entertaining to see how wonder.land’s creators have taken inspiration from the original, and turned it into something that resonates in the modern day.

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This new musical is just that: new, and I like that. While coming-of-age stories are something we’re generally familiar with, this is one that touches all of our hearts- the iPhone in my pocket certainly started to weigh more heavily towards the end. It’s a harsh reminder of how we so easily lose sight of who we are these days. But it’s also hearwarming, hilarious, and damn good entertainment.

wonder.land is showing at The National Theatre until April 2016- find out more on the website– or do as the show suggests, and visit www.wonder.land

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