Review: WONDER.LAND at the National Theatre, Olivier

I don't think I have ever had as much of a conflicted opinion on a show as I do currently on the National Theatre's latest co-produced musical 'wonder.land', currently playing in rep with Les Blancs at the National Theatre, Olivier. When the show was first announced over a year ago, I was excited to hear that the Broadway flop Wonderland with music by Frank Wildhorn was coming to London (which is incidentally receiving its UK premiere on tour next year)... only to quickly realise that this was a similar premise, but not the same show.

Instead, relative newcomer to the musical theatre scene Damon Albarn had decided to make the original Lewis Carroll tale even more modern and take it into the virtual reality and I sat in the theatre questioning if it was a good choice to make.

I love the story of Alice in Wonderland - so much so that it might be my favourite story ever - but seeing the tale come to the stage in this show seemed almost entirely irrelevant. Not only did the references and odes to the characters of the original story seem heavy handed, but they felt confused as well; the idea was that different people represented different characters from the original story, but I began to get confused by two different people called Alice (or was it three?) and two different characters that represented the Mad Hatter - why didn't all of the characters have a parallel from the story? It felt weird and lost and it confused me, so much so that I almost feel like the show would've been much better had the Wonderland theme be dropped completely and a new idea be explored. Following a young girl named Alice be bullied at school and watching her find escape in this online computer game also felt patronising and considering I'm not even 18 years old yet, it's worrying to think what the rest of the audience thought.

The music was forgettable as well with the only piece of music stuck in my head to this day being the very irritating "pussycat, pussycat..." theme that I only really remember playing through the virtual reality headsets you could try on in the NT's pop-up exhibition to accompany the show - an experience that is arguably better than the show itself! Not only was the music forgettable and at times just not enjoyable, I got so musically confused with what was going on from a technical perspective that it began to become tedious; I just wanted them to stop singing at times because I found the music so unenjoyable. The book wasn't much better either with a serious amount of cliches being thrown out left right and centre and it all in all made the experience more and more confusing by the minute.

Perhaps the only redeeming factor for this show was the technical aspect, with some incredible light design and costume design by Paule Constable and Katrina Lindsay respectively. From the massive projection of the Cheshire Cat on the back wall to the very modern costume for the White Rabbit, it was delightful to watch. It was also amazing to see a story that managed to star a female of colour and a gay man of colour and for none of those attributes to ever be referenced or be commented upon irrelevantly. It's a norm for most of us in our day to day lives to never feel the need to focus on a person's sex, race or sexual orientation but in the Arts culture we're currently surrounded by, it's a rare gem and it's a perfect example of what other theatre and film should try their best to emulate.

Weirdly, I didn't actually hate my evening at wonder.land because it managed to be fun for me in more ways than from a technical perspective, but it is still a show I would never rush back to see. I felt like I was seeing a world premiere of a show that still needed a lot of work and while it wasn't too surprising, it was still very disappointing. Regardless, I look forward to seeing where this show can go in the future with the work it needs: I can only hope for the best with the show I went to see.

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