★★★★½ wonder.land | National Theatre | Until 30 April 2016
A suitably weird and wonderful reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s magical masterpiece, wonder.land is a YA pantomime for the digital age: daring and discombobulating, and just one fist-pumping moment short of perfection.
Let it be known right away that expectations were low – word from the Manchester International Festival was that wonder.land was a not-so-hot mess, and the early London reviews suggested that any rejigging had been mostly unsuccessful.
Well, nay sayers be damned! wonder.land is a ballsy, brash and brilliant update on Alice In Wonderland, with the smart phone representing the rabbit hole, and an online world of avatars Wonderland itself.
Perhaps it’s just the festive spirit seeping in from the nearby Southbank Christmas Market, but wonder.land feels like a thoroughly modern panto – the hero, the helpers, the quest and, of course, the panto villain are all present and correct, although creatively refigured so as not to feel hackneyed and clichéd.
It’s easy to see why some mainstream press reviewers have been left nonplussed: wonder.land is not easily categorised, neither wholly panto, YA fiction, comedy, musical, dystopian thriller or psychedelic fantasy, yet partly all of the above and more. The National Theatre website correctly states that wonder.land explores teenage issues and contains some strong language. But of course, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that there are no issues explored or language used that wouldn’t be out-of-place in the school playground. Indeed, it’s about time that theatre caught up with literature in realising that young adults are far more grown up than adults would care to imagine.
Damon Albarn’s music is creative and innovative without crossing the line into impenetrability – this is a man who (increasingly) understands the musical theatre genre. Teamed with Moira Buffini’s book and lyrics, the songs and spoken word of wonder.land achieve the goal of any musical – to intertwine so seamlessly as to leave the audience totally comfortable with each movement into and out of song.
The first half is proper, five-star stuff – only a cold-hearted misanthrope could avoid grinning and the sheer bravura of staging, acting, choreography and music. It is the curse of this fine show that the second half must inevitably become dark and, despite a worthy effort, the finale comes one heart thumping and fist pumping moment of elation short of attaining five-star perfection. Nevertheless, wonder.land is engaging, entertaining and – against all the odds – a cohesive, coherent spectacle. Encore!