Posted on: 15 January 2016 by Laurence Green

A radical modern makeover of Alice in Wonderland is provided in Rufus Norris's spectacular production of wonder.land (Oliver auditorium at the National) with music by Blur's Damon Albarn and book and lyrics by Moira Buffini.

Lois Chimimba (Aly) and Carly Bawden (Alice). Photography by Brinkhoff and Mögenburg

The heroine is Aly, an unsettled teenage girl tormented by bullies at school and caught in the crossfire of her parent; disintegrating marriage - her father is a gambling addict and her mother is too preoccupied with her baby Charlie to pay her much attention. Fleeing her dysfunctional family, she discovers online a cyber world called wonder.land where there are people willing to listen including her avatar, the blonde, fearless Alice, as well as a whole host of quirky and bizarre characters - a dodo , a mouse and mock turtle - that hide similarly lost and unhappy human souls. Leaving behind her home town, where pylons rise into a limitless grey sky, Aly finds refuge in this exotic online world, with that pesky white rabbit continually egging her on.

This how is billed as "Alice for the online generation" and certainly manages to seem miles away from quaint Victoriana and indeed it lacks the charm and wit of the original Moira Buffini's script is weak, preaching the need for self-acceptance and with an element of coarse humour running through it  - a rude mouse talks about cat turds, backsides and crack cocaine. Damon Albarn's incidental music is not what you might expect from a traditional musical score and, although at times rather bland, does manage to combine disparate notes of old London music hall, melancholic pop, plaintive ballads and jittery, electronic bleeps, which add to the suitably deranged atmosphere.

What compensates for the lack of a narrative drive is Rufus Norris's remarkable visual flair. Rae Smith's set deploys shape-shifting, almost hallucinogenic abstract visuals - there is an eye-opening psychedelic caterpillar made out of a chain of human "baubles", a frenetic white rabbit and a dodo depicted as a hapless bodybuilder, while Katrina Lindsay's costumes are bold and striking.

Lois Chimimba makes for a very modern, mixed-race Aly, struggling with the pressures of bring a teenager: family, school friends and her own insecurities and discovering an extraordinary virtual world where perhaps she can create a new life. Carly Bawden is deliberately made to look her physical opposite as the Alice of wonder.land and Anna Francolini makes an elegant, dominatrix style figure as Aly's headmistress who confiscates her phone and steals her identity.

This bizarre tribute to Lewis Carroll emerges, then, as a flowed, but inventive coming-of-age adventure that reveals the blurred boundaries between our online and offline lives.

Oliver auditorium, National Theatre

Runs until 30 April 2016
Box office: 020 7452 300

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