Created by Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini & Rufus Norris
Music by Damon Albarn
Book and lyrics by Moira Buffini
Directed by Rufus Norris
Set design by Rae Smith
Choreography by Javiar de Frutos
Music supervisor Tom Deering
The Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London
Saturday 30th January 2016, evening
Simon Anthony – ensemble, swing
Carly Bawden – Alice
Lois Chimimba – Aly
Leon Cooke – Dee
Adrian Grove – PC Rook
Ivan De Freitas – Dodo
Hal Fowler – MC, Cheshire Cat, Caterpillar
Anne Francolini – Ms Manxome
Adrian Grove – Mr King
Paul Hilton – Matt
Joshua Lacey – White Rabbit
Dylan Mason – ensemble + swing
Daisy Maywood- Humpty
Enri Okoronkwo- Luke Lapel
Stephanie Rojas – Mary Ann
Abigail Rose – Kitty
Golda Rusheuvel- Bianca
Cydney Uffindell-Phillips – Mock Turtle
Ed Wade – Mouse / Lieran
Lisa Ritchie – Dinah
The reviews range from one star to four star, though the original Manchester run got the worst of the reviews and they say the music has been heavily reworked for the National Theatre. The music is by Damon Albarn, and fans of Blur and/or Gorrilaz had travelled from Europe to see it and whooped with enthusiasm.
Alice (Carly Bawden) with Aly (Lois Chimimba)
The frame plot centres on Aly, a teenager from a broken family. Her mum and dad split, and it’s all her fault because she told mum about dad’s online gambling. She has a baby brother, Charlie … a superb puppet baby … who vomits spectacularly. Aly is at a new school and is being bullied by a gang of three girls. She makes friends with Luke, who is also bullied because he’s gay.
Albarn had said his Smartphone was “the rabbit hole.” wonder.land is a video game, and Aly choose an avatar who looks like Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland … blue dress, blonde hair, and thin. Luke points out that while they are both mixed race, she chose a white, thin, blonde avatar. The bullies accuse her of being fat.
Alice and The White Rabbit, in school toilets
We have the white rabbit, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Dodo … and most spectacularly for one number, the hookah smoking caterpillar. They’re all characters in the video game. Luke also has a video game about killer zombies that he plays with an avatar.
The head teacher, Ms Manxome, confiscate’s Aly’s phone and gets obsessed by the game too, taking over the Alice Avatar and changing it to a savage red queen. Aly and Luke have to get back into the game, get rid of Ms Manxome, and reunite Aly’s mum and dad. That’s the plot.
Projected Cheshire Cat
The SFX are full on – wonderful projection of games scenes, and especially a scene with a psychedelic cheshire cat chanting “Eat me!” Towers emerge from the stage and sink into the stage. We have electric cars, the MC flying on wires, text messages flash up, a dazzling array of theatrical possibilities. There was a very good band, and the scoring and arrangements were first class. Oddly the band were split in two musicians’ galleries. Piano, drums, bass guitar and electric guitar were stage right. Reeds, violin and electronic keyboard / organ on the other side, stage left. It all meshed. I spent some time marvelling at Sarah Freestone moving from violin to acoustic guitar to banjo to ukulele, seamlessly and brilliantly. There’s a clue to my involvement in the story at times … I found myself watching the band not the action.
Aly choose her avatar
It was indeed a “daring” production. But in the end it was somewhat theme park. Great costumes, huge effects, excellent musicians, very good singers … but incoherent, as theme park efforts so often are. I felt they’d been watching the Cirque du soleil for elaborate costumes and tableaux and colour … the sad bus stop character was VERY Cirque clown … but face it, LOVE has way, way better music than this and it has acrobatics too. Maybe if you love Blur and video games and smart phones and are bullied at secondary school it would be fantastic. Oddly reviews mentioned the music being experimental and beeps and sounds, though to me it really sounded as if Damon Albarn was trying to write classic 60s stage musical in style with a British touch of the Tommy Steele … and very often succeeding too. He talks in the programme about love of music hall. They fell into the musical trap (for me) of singing some lines and interchanges which really should have been spoken, not sung to a vague tune. There’s nothing on there to compete with Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit.
The cast are good, but that’s a given nowadays with the wealth of available talent. Full marks to Lois Chimimba as Aly, Anna Francolini as Ms Manxome and Paul Hilton as Matt (Dad). We had two understudies on and you would never have noticed the join. Lisa Ritchie took over Dinah, one of the three bullies, and Adrian Grove transformed WPC Rooke to PC Rooke.
I liked the teen “dialogue” scenes in the school much better than the fantasy scenes. They were well-written and funny. I liked the school uniform, halfway between Tenniel and school gear. I admired the graphics tremendously. I admired the band. Some of the songs went on too long – “Everybody Loves Charlie” went on far too long.
It started its run in London before Christmas, which kind of justified it, because of the Alice connection, but while appealing to teenagers, it wouldn’t appeal at all to younger kids, and “Fuck off” would be inappropriate, though it only appears once.
This is the Olivier Theatre at the National, and yes, it should be trying new stuff by British writers, and the huge expense of this size of cast, extent of effects and especially behind the scenes on graphics could not possibly be borne by the usual smaller “new drama” theatres like the Almeida, the Donmar, the Young Vic or the Royal Court. There is the weight of talent … Damon Albarn is hugely eclectic and award winning, Rufus Norris is Director of the National Theatre, Moira Buffin an acclaimed playwright. The set designer did War Horse. The lighting designer did the Grandage Season. I guess their aim is “another War Horse.” A spectacular original piece of theatre with mileage, created by the National Theatre. You’ve got to try a few before you find one that successful.
But at the start of Shakespeare’s 400th Anniversary of his death year, should one of our two greatest public spaces be devoting several months to this extremely expensive and elaborate show? Ticket sales seem fine … full on Saturday night, which is a justification. People want to see it. But it is a long run. And no one stood up for the curtain calls tonight – in contrast with Funny Girl the night before when everyone did spontaneously for Sheridan Smith. Maybe not standing is an NT thing. I’m the wrong age group to be a reliable judge. They say clearly in the programme they had the teenagers in mind, so it’s not surprising that older reviewers and patrons are somewhat sniffy about it.
Is it “good enough” as an intrinsic musical though? For me, while there is a great deal to admire technically, it’s not. Incoherence of story, and integration of the two themes are the culprits. It’s that sub-Cirque, Theme park show aspect.
Excellent essays. £4, which is £1 cheaper than the greatly inferior one at the Menier the night before.