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Damon Albarn’s Wonder.land review at the Olivier, National Theatre – ‘disappointing’

Carly Bawden and Lois Chimimba in Wonder.land at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Carly Bawden and Lois Chimimba in Wonder.land at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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I previously reviewed Wonder.land during its initial summer run as part of the Manchester International Festival, and gave it the benefit of some doubts, writing then, “There are still tweaks and cuts to be made to clarify and shape it, and with a transfer to the National’s Olivier Theatre already booked for the end of November and Paris to follow, this is only the first pass at making the show work.”

Now, after 16 previews – longer than the entire Manchester run – it has officially reopened at the National. Alice, an online avatar, gives bullied young schoolgirl Aly access to a different universe that she can exert more control over. She asks a giant caterpillar: “Who are you?” It is spectacularly embodied by no less than seven actors dressed in what look like swathes of glittering tinsel trailed by a series of giant pumpkins.

I’m afraid that the show itself, with book and lyrics by Moira Buffini to music by Damon Albarn, and co-created by them both with director Rufus Norris, is similarly dressed up with nowhere to go and is never quite sure of the answer about what it is or is trying to be.

A 10-year-old boy I overheard on the way out of the theatre commented to his mother, “It was a bit mad, but in a good way.” She looked at him unconvinced. “I’m glad you thought so,” she replied. Actually, the show may just be totally demented almost all the way. Is Aly’s constantly puking kid brother, embodied by a puppet, offering its own review of the proceedings?

Aly’s gambling addict of a father, whose addiction has split the family apart, has a big number about seizing life’s passing moments: “Let us eat cake and raise our cracked teacups to life’s chances.” Unfortunately the show is full of missed chances of its own.

There’s an ambitious story inside Wonder.land about schoolground bullying that now extends to a parallel online world that children simultaneously inhabit, and also a portrait of a dysfunctional family seeking to put itself back together. But the show is also an assault course of special effects – not for the first time in a musical, it is seriously in danger of being upstaged by its own visuals – and its indifferent tunes.

Damon Albarn may be a prolific and respected pop composer, but he knows nothing of landing a song in the theatre. Oddest of all is the decision to put it in the Olivier, staged end-on throughout and with all those jarring visuals that demand interaction, it would sit far more comfortably in the Lyttelton.

Some of the performances survive the mess, with Lois Chimimba’s Aly showing real vulnerability as Aly and Golda Roshuevel and Paul Hilton touching as her pained, strained parents. Others are constrained by the two-dimensional characters Moira Buffini’s script provides, like Anna Francolini’s stern bully of a headmistress, or Carly Bawden as the avatar Alice.

Having provided two of the best original British musicals of the century so far – Jerry Springer the Opera and London Road (the latter also directed by Norris) – it is disappointing that the National has now produced what may well go down as one of the worst.

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A muddle of a musical that had early signs of promise at its Manchester premiere but has failed to deliver on it