moments of theatrical beauty that tantalise your senses and bring a joy to your eyes that is rarely experienced.
In this new musical, created by Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and one of the first pieces to be directed by Rufus Norris since becoming Artistic Director of the National last year, our heroine is now "Ally", the older sister to a baby boy, and daughter of recently separated interracial parents, who split due to the Father's secret online gambling addiction. The parents' split has brought with it issues of which we are very aware today; Ally blames herself for causing the separation, she finds it difficult to fit into her new school and is jealous of the attention given to her sibling - all of which lead her to seek solace in a virtual world, where she can create a better version of her self in a place that will embrace her. And the world she finds happens to be a Second Life style online game called, of course, www.wonder.land.
Guided by the alluring Cheshire Cat (also the Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar and general Master of Ceremonies in an absolutely show-stealing performance by Hal Fowler, who brings an appealing sense of humour and bonhomie to a character that you can't take your eyes off whenever he is on stage, whilst knowing that you would feel uncomfortable leaving your children alone with him), she continually chases the white rabbit computer icon in the 'body' of her avatar, Alice, who Ally has created to represent everything she sees as the ideal persona; a white, blond, strong, brave and popular girl (brought to life by Carly Bowden, who not only sings beautifully but manages to seem both real and imaginarily robotic at the same time). The rest of the Alice story then plays out as you will probably know, plot wise, but here, the eclectic fantastical characters we meet are all the avatars of other lonely children in the game (Dum and Dee are really twin girls feeling pressured to be skinny dancers, Mouse is "just always a dick" no matter how much he tries not to be, Mock Turtle hides in a bin because she feels she is too spotty and ugly to be seen) who all find acceptance with their shared lack of self-worth, singing It's a Crap Life to make them all feel better together. The other main character of The Queen of Hearts is the school's headteacher (a hilarious Anna Francolini), a bitter and lonely woman in a child's world whose name also happens to be Alice and who steals Ally's avatar in order to create chaos and pain by rejecting sociability as a solution to her loneliness.
So far, so expectedly 'updated'. But to see this as simply an update of a classic for a modern world is to do it an injustice, misunderstanding the qualities - and the pitfalls - of the production. For it's less a show about the digital age and more one that embraces the ideology and technology of our time to create some visually exciting and enthralling tableaux that draw you in in a way you might imagine an LSD trip would. It does this both with dreamy colour and film projected on to a double layer of screens filling the whole of the stage, and also with the staging - from the furniture and set pieces that seem to glide around and almost float on and offstage, to the live action stylised movements of the ensemble; all exaggerated, cartoonesque hair, make-up and costumes with slick, tight repetitive movements that carry the show along. The way that the Caterpillar is created by seven individual cast members combine all these elements to beguile you with their movement in a way that mere words would do little justice - it has to be seen. These are moments of theatrical beauty that tantalise your senses and bring a joy to your eyes that is rarely experienced.
But this is also why there have been mixed reviews for the show. For - as strong as these visual delights are - they are pretty much all there is to enjoy and their strength acts to highlight the weaknesses throughout the piece. The play out of the story is flimsy and muddled, the 'real' characters and the situations they deal with (as opposed to those in the virtual world) are clichéd and unbelievable – and the lyrics (I would estimate that around 90% of the text is sung) could have been supplied by a children's poetry competition. Whilst I understand the nod to childlike poetic rhyming in this style of writing - and some are actually amusing - when being subjected to such lines as "You make me throw up, Why don't you grow up", "His game was roulette, And he'd fallen into debt" and "Your avatar's so cute, You must look like a brute", the style and the joke wears very thin very quickly, feeling instead like a rhyming dictionary has been over-thumbed in the writing. And the majority of these lyrics don't sit within anything that becomes a memorable or 'hummable' show song - merely replacing the spoken word. "Who are you?" (which is the idea and the line you are expected to remember from the show as it adorns the plethora of merchandise on sale) is strong and sung well, but I couldn't recall the tune an hour later. And the MC's "www.wonder.land" that tops and tails the show does stick in your head, but it is more a refrain than a complete song.
Where the first act just about gets away with these problems due to the strong elements of visualisation throughout, they are much clearer in the second. The projections and movement become less common and less clever and so the weaknesses in the piece have no place to hide - you notice them more and forgive them much less. Throwing in a song about the baby boy - "Everybody loves Charlie" - serves no purpose to plot, theatricality or quality and challenges us to maintain an interest it doesn't warrant. And when the final battle scene comes around, it is a melee of too much action with none of the beauty you'd expect, hurting your eyes and making the weak lyrics and poor structure come right to the fore. It's a weak ending that seems to have been rushed together without the care and attention that created the strengths of the show.
How you view this piece very much depends on what you enjoy. I would recommend going in with open eyes - very open eyes so you can fully experience the design, the costumes, the ensemble's skill with movement and the beautiful projections. Don't expect a story. Don't take children who just want to see Alice in Wonderland (or who are easily shocked - whilst it's recommended for those over ten, the language used does include terms like 'bitch', 'shit', 'dick', 'slut' and one or two 'fuck's). And don't expect to buy the soundtrack. If that works for you, then there are some rarely bettered theatrical treats in store.