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WONDER.LAND – National Theatre, London.

wonder.landwonder.landDamon Albarn’s preoccupation with the digital age was writ large in, and central to, his 2014 debut solo record, Everyday Robots. This obsession continues in his ebullient co-creation wonder.land: a shared reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s evergreen Alice In Wonderland alongside Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris.

Presented to audiences in Manchester in July, it was greeted with what could best be described as ‘mixed’ response. For a critical darling such as Albarn, it must have knocked the wind out his sails somewhat. Maybe this was a consequence of his reignited duties with Blur? Maybe this had taken a distracting toll? After all, one can spread themselves too thinly. As wonder.land rolls into London, however, some tweaking and rebooting has been undertaken. This could well be down to the enlistment of National Theatre director Norris, who has previous with Albarn on the opera Dr Dee.

We find a very contemporary Aly (Lois Chimimba) in a very contemporary world. The product of a broken home, our mixed-race girl looks to her parents and finds not too much in the way of reassurance or support. With a wastrel, eccentric father and a brash, pragmatic mother, she is at the centre of considerable dissension. Everyone loves baby Charlie, her infant vomit-inclined brother, but she, herself, is something of an outcast. Criticised as ‘fat’ by a bunch of brutish classmates, her spunky personality is suppressed by cripplingly low self-esteem.

In order to escape her dire existence, she retreats to the oasis of an online community – the titular wonder.land – wherein she creates an avatar to explore the world of virtual reality. She designs a blonde Alice (Carly Bawden): her self-proclaimed opposite. There, she meets other social pariahs and voyages deep into the land of the absurd in the name of unity and acceptance. All that is asked of her is that she avoid conducting in extreme malice. Meanwhile, back in the real world, her egomaniacal, diffident and pedagogical headmistress, Miss Manxome (Anna Francolini) confiscates Aly’s mobile phone in a fit of pedantry. Beguiled by the images on the phone’s screen, she soon hijacks the game for herself. Extreme (m)Alice follows and a collision course for competing interests ensue.

Although the message at wonder.land’s heart is couched in cliché, its dazzling refinery is something to behold in itself. Yes, the production might be lacking a big sing-along number, but this is an inventive work that plays with vim and vigour to a younger audience. It does so by bombarding them with a sensory overload, in a musical constantly looking to arrest the eyes. Lavish and bold gestures sweeping from left to right, top to bottom, front and back.

Naysayers will be heard for the quibbles listed earlier in the preceding, but the itchy, restlessness of wonder.land is akin to a puppy eager to please. Much like a puppy, it certainly doesn’t get everything right but, more often than not, it does succeed in putting a broad smile on your face.

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Reviewed 16/12/15

By Greg Wetherall

23rd November 2015 – 30th April 2016
National Theatre, London SE1 9PX

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