WONDER.LAND Palace, Manchester

DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE 

Fifty minutes in, we got a 30ft yodelling falsetto caterpillar with flashing saucer eyes, and I cheered up. It also, as it happens, sang the central message of Damon Albarn’s musical, centrepiece of the Manchester International Festival in partnership with the National Theatre ( Rufus Norris himself directs). The message is “Who are you?”, ‘cos it’s all about teenage self-realisation in the age of broken homes and feral schools under the cosh of Goveian superheads. This necessitates a girl’s escape down the rabbit-hole of the smartphone, to become a braver avatar of herself.

So Albarn, with book-and-lyrics by Moira Buffini, dodges around Dodgson. Troubled Aly – Lois Chimimba – chooses to be a blonde Alice in the wonder.land virtual-reality game . It comes to life as Rosalie Craig, interacting with assorted Carroll characters who are fellow-players’ avatars: including a magnificent Dodo, a 12ft high sacking mouse, and a gluttonous Dum and Dee. The White Rabbit, in a gas-mask and huge balloon ears, is plain terrifying; Humpty is a battered infant with a balloon.
Aly is addicted to the game, doesn’t like her Mum and is jealous of a baby brother; her Dad (Luke Fetherston, one of the merrier characters) has moved out after losing everything to online gambling addiction. So she’s bullied at school.

A pretty standard High-School movie plot, then, including a Dahl-style demon headmistress: Anna Francolini on spiffing form, banning phones with “These little portals will lead you astray, the danger is mortal, your brain will decay”. When she confiscates Aly’s for using it in school (a disciplinary measure we are encouraged to consider mean and evil, cos Rufus ’n Damien are determinedly down wid da kidz) she pirates the avatar and turns Alice to the dark side. So there is a big denouement, heroic rescue, partnership with a bullied gay boy, etc. No, that’s not a spoiler: it’s the most basic Grange-Hill of plots, and this unsubtle internet tale is not The Nether…
What it depends on is design. Vast projections overhang and steal the monochrome “real world” scenes; Rae Smith’s set, 59 Productions projections, Paule Constable’s lighting and Katrina Lindsay’s mad fanciful costumes just about carry it, with help from occasional glints of Buffini wit in the script (I like Aly’s doomy teenage wail of “How can you say I’m wasting my life online – online IS my life”). And Albarn, who has said that modern musicals are mainly “garbage”, remembers enough about them to have a dancing first-half closer and a rousing fight at the climax.
The curious thing, though, is how dull and derivative nearly all the music is. The one good song is the Caterpillar’s Frank-Ifieldish yodelling of “Who are youuuuu?”. Otherwise plonking choruses, hesitant sub-Sondheim recitatives and some direct steals from music-hall: Dad’s Act 1mad-tea-party finale is more or less “My Old Man’s a Dustman” and the opening row with his wife after the interval owes much to “Any Old Iron”. And I cannot be alone, during Francolini’s staccato patter about always being right, in remembering Rex Harrison doing “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”. The Albarn apple hasn’t fallen that far from the tree. But for all the spectacle and earnest topicality, it all ends up feeling a bit like – well, a grin without a cat.

box office 0844 871 7654 to 12 July
To NT in November.
rating three

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