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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Carly Bawden and Lois Chimimba/ Ph: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

A school of thought prevalent lately in London theatrical circles had it that the success – or otherwise – of this misfiring new musical would provide a crucial litmus test of the health of the ambivalent National Theatre regime of new-ish Artistic Director Rufus Norris. For the sake of the country’s flagship theatre, currently floundering where previously it was flying, let’s hope that the test can be extended forward a production or two, for is all kinds of muddle. I haven’t seen so many empty seats at the National for a long time.
It’s common in such cases to say that the idea was ill conceived. But that’s simply not true in this instance. What could be better than to update Lewis Carroll’s seminal Alice in Wonderland, a marvellously shape-shifting narrative capable of being stretched in multiple directions, for the Internet generation? Add in Blur frontman Damon Albarn on music and playwright Moira "Handbagged" Buffini on book and lyrics, and it could – should – have worked. Yet it doesn’t, for all the endeavours of Norris’ own try-hard production.
Let’s get one thing straight from the start. Any piece hymning the potential pleasures of the Internet needs to look great – shiny and confident. It’s a disgrace then that the graphics here are pitiful, something from the early days of computers in the 1980s rather than today’s slick world of iPads and sharp screens. The aesthetic of the show thus becomes a tiresome, persistent niggle.
Albarn, Buffini and Norris at least proffer an appealing starting point. Teenage Aly (Lois Chimimba) is bullied at school and beleaguered by warring parents at home. It’s no surprise that she prefers to disappear down the rabbit hole of her smartphone and alights upon the eponymous role-play site, whose enticing tagline is "Be Someone Else." She selects as her avatar the smart and precise Alice (Carly Bawden) and off they set to meet a selection of other similarly solitary friend-seekers. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t begin to exploit the full potential of the weird and wonderful folk, whereas the "above ground" story trundles on, mundane and predictable.
Chimimba is an amiable enough presence, although her irksome habit of singing flat grates horribly. It’s a crime to see a wonderful actor such as Paul Hilton, who plays Aly’s lost-soul Dad, stranded in tosh like this. Surely the National has something better it could offer him? Albarn’s music is bland and unmemorable; the only performer who looks as if they’re enjoying it is Anna Francolini’s marvellously acerbic and strutting Red Queen-esque headteacher Ms Manxome. "In my day, no one had dyslexia. They had a condition called thick," is one of her many choice lines.
One can’t help but feel that if the National had mounted a sparkling new adaptation of Alice in Wonderland itself, it would have been infinitely preferable. I suspect that in not so many years to come, all involved will look back on and cringe.


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