02/07/15 - wonder.land at the Manchester International Festival

If you take your seats in Manchester's Palace Theatre for wonder.land expecting a straightforward musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, you will undoubtedly be disappointed.  However, if you approach the performance with an open mind, you'll embark on a truly unique adventure down a digital rabbit hole with this visually ambitious reimagining of a British children's classic.

The problem with any adaptation, especially of a book which is so well-known and well-loved, is expectation.  When it was announced that Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris were attempting a modernised musical version of Alice, you could've been forgiven for being a little sceptical.  150 years after the book's publication, it's hard to imagine a new way to approach this source material.  It's embedded in popular British culture with so many people deeply committed to its legacy that you could argue an entirely original angle is the only adaptation that is really worth doing.  wonder.land does exactly this and with absolutely no half measures - although the influences are clearly there, this is in no way a traditional Alice.  The sense of confusion that runs throughout the original is very much present, as is the theme of identity and the difficulties of growing up and leaving childhood.  So this may be Alice, but not as we've known her.  Now she's growing up in a world of smartphones and cyberbullies, but everything is still as incomprehensible as it was in the Victorian era.  Admittedly, this new slant probably won't appeal to a lot of Alice purists but stories will always end up being reinterpreted and manipulated over time - fairytales being a prime example.  We adapt old stories to keep them relevant for modern audiences which is exactly what this piece does so well.

© Brinkhoff/M√∂egenburg
The plot follows Aly (Lois Chimimba), a teenage girl struggling to cope with her parents' recent break-up and with navigating a new school populated by mean girls and an even meaner teacher.  Lonely and misunderstood, she finds solace online - in wonder.land, she can be whoever she wants to be; in this case, brave beautiful 'Alice' (Rosalie Craig) who isn't afraid to stand up for herself and her online friends.  But the further Aly descends into her virtual world, the more she struggles to keep it separate from her real life until she finds the two colliding in a way beyond her control.

What I found most impressive about this piece was not its accomplishment of being a musical, although it successfully meets the expectations of the genre, but rather the blend of artistic disciplines which create a unique sensory experience.  The multi-layered projections of computer graphics with tactile costume design and versatile set pieces give a fascinating viewing experience, particularly as the audience get to see the digital world interacting with the real.  The soundscape is fresh and original, and the use of digital music is a refreshing addition to the more traditional stage musical elements.  There's a very clear stylistic difference between the drab monochrome real world and the vividly colourful online world of wonder.land which replicates the contrast between the two in Carroll's original.  

© Brinkhoff/M√∂egenburg
Strong performances were given all round with most characters getting their chance to shine throughout the production.  Lois Chimimba was a vulnerable and perhaps most importantly believable Aly, giving a refreshing performance from the Alice we have come to expect.  The Cheshire Cat played by Hal Fowler acted as the mischievous narrator, both as the voice of an impressive computer-generated projection and as a physical character on the stage.  This struck me as a clever way to connect reality to the digital world.  But for me, the show was stolen by Anna Francolini as Ms Manxome, Aly's headteacher who I found to be an intimidating combination of Miss Trunchbull and Professor Umbridge.  Her performance gave the character real complexity and humour, playing the role from comedic threat to truly villainous.

© Brinkhoff/M√∂egenburg

Due to the nature of the adaptation, I imagine this production could spark mixed reviews from the general public but I fear that was always going to be the way.  Although it has been heavily marketed as being an adaptation of Carroll's book, the references to the source material are not the driving force of the plot.  They are well-placed and very effective, but the show doesn't rely too heavily on them or pander to the Alice fans who are undoubtedly in the audience.  I would have been interested to know how it fares as a piece of theatre in its own right, but I suspect it would be practically impossible to find someone who is completely unfamiliar with Alice who could test that.  My advice for anyone who is considering going to the production and is a little unsure as to how they're going to feel about this adaptation is to try and enjoy it for what is is rather than condemning it for what it isn't. 

wonder.land is running until 12th July 2015 at the Palace Theatre as part of Manchester International Festival before moving to the Olivier Theatre in London's West End from November.  

1 comment:

  1. I've seen this advertised a lot around Manchester, looks like a great show!

    Sophie | www.dreamsandcolourschemes.com