Manchester International Festival is now in its fifth year as the city’s artist-led project that features original, innovative arts. To kick off the festival I headed to the Palace Theatre to see wonder.land, a brand new musical which reboots Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in celebration of the novel’s 150th anniversary. With a score written by Damon Albarn and directed by the National Theatre’s Rufus Norris, there is nothing but promise here.
The play’s answer to Carroll’s traditional heroine is awkward teenager Aly, played with youthful charm by Lois Chimimba. Aly, like any teenager (or adult, for that matter) is glued to her smartphone, a portal for escapism from her grey reality. With a demanding mother and an absent father, a new school and no friends, Aly’s world is pretty bleak. Her little brother Charlie, a puppet constantly being thrown between her and her mother, would projectile vomit on cue, which did seem like an unnecessary plea for cheap laughs. However, Rae Smith’s quirky set design did well in mirroring the dystopian reality. Rickety metal carts pulled by a golf buggy is a bus; thick, grey stone walls surround Aly and her classmates as the school building.
So, no wonder Aly escapes to her phone. Wonder.land is an online game which allows Aly to create her own avatar – Alice, in the form of a peppy, doe-eyed Rosalie Craig complete with the signature blonde locks and blue frills. Our white rabbit (Rob Compton) is a hyperactive virtual guide whose jarring movements are reminiscent of old school video game characters.
Aly and Alice befriend other users in the game, teenagers like herself who feel out of place in their reality and more comfortable in the virtual world. Dum and Dee are boisterous, lewd lads played by Sam Archer and Sam Mackay, their grotesque shapes with big shiny bellies march in unison around the stage demanding coins – which you can earn in wonder.land by playing in-app games. Then there’s Anna Francolini’s hilariously eccentric headmistress whose obsession with beheading pupils sounds a little familiar…
In keeping with Carroll’s nonsensical prose, the play descends into madness as wonder.land creeps into reality. Paul Hilton’s portrayal of Aly’s dad Matt as a cheeky rock ’n’ roll ruffian was brilliant. In typical anarchic fashion he starts a rambunctious Cockney brawl in the middle of a tea shop – without losing his hat (get it?). I found myself clapping with joy at the end of Act One – as worlds collide and the Cheshire Cat, played by the fantastically camp Hal Fowler, parades round the stage in a giant tea pot and exclaims “Fabulous!” before a blackout.
wonder.land is a spectacle to say the least. From 59 Productions, the team that brought us the 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, the visual effects and projections are bold and exciting. Albarn’s score works well in propelling the narrative and there are some brilliant moments of toe-tapping fun, however a lot of the songs seem to drift over our heads and are soon forgotten.
Aly’s journey is one of self discovery – and Norris explores this idea using the caterpillar’s curious question as a crux for the narrative – “Who are you?”. We go online to discover who we are. Online is a place where we can be anonymous, yet be whoever we want to be. Technology is our wonderland, our escape. Our escape is no longer in our imagination because we can realise our imagination online – a garish and bright and captivating place where nothing is our of the ordinary.
Norris’s musical is fantastical, fun and very relevant, and did not disappoint in recreating the whimsical world of Alice’s Wonderland that we know and love. If you go for the impressive visuals, the intriguing costumes or the strong ensemble of zany characters – we should all get lost down this virtual rabbit hole, just once.
wonder.land is playing at the Palace Theatre Manchester as part of the Manchester International Festival until 12 July. For tickets and more information, see the Manchester International Festival website.