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Before you take your seat for this digital-age update of the Lewis Carroll classic, you can flirt with wonder.land yourself. Gadgets and games in the theatre foyer enable you to post yourself into strangely altered images of reality. It’s an apt prelude for this immensely ambitious musical from writer Moira Buffini, composer Damon Albarn and director Rufus Norris, which aims to find a theatrical language for the way the virtual world can seem more vivid than the real.
Visually, it succeeds spectacularly, Rae Smith’s fun, trippy designs combining with 59 Productions’ dazzling video work to turn the Olivier stage into an online playground that invades the everyday as lonely young teenager Aly escapes into cyberspace.
Elsewhere the results are more mixed.
Family break-up, school-bullying and adolescent insecurity have left Aly (a warm, touching performance from Lois Chimimba) miserable. Then she discovers wonder.land: an online site and chatroom where she can create her avatar — Alice — blonde, blue-eyed and white. The assembly of this character will be familiar to any teenager who has played a video game, and the moment when the finished Alice steps off the screen and into live 3D form is a delight.
Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are a wonder in themselves: Alice (Carly Bawden) teeters about in absurd platform shoes, while other creatures such as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, each of them avatars for lonely misfit teenagers, are wackily strange. Best of all is the caterpillar, a glittering green string of detachable segments, who asks Alice the show’s central question: who are you?
As Aly increasingly relies on this fantasy space, Norris draws us with her, bleeding the “online” into the “real” world. Meanwhile Albarn’s jagged little snatches of tunes, reminiscent in places of music hall songs, go for texture over take-home numbers. But gradually the show gets bogged down in its own ambition. There are so many issues here — online bullying, gambling, addiction, family break-up, identity, sexuality — that none of them gets proper airtime and neither Aly’s emotional journey nor the central message of self-acceptance are subtly handled. The teenage characters are thinly drawn and the plot veers off as the domineering headmistress (a fabulously spiky Anna Francolini) confiscates Aly’s phone and steals her avatar.
It’s a show full of creative flair, but dramatic substance gets rather lost down the rabbit hole.
To April 30, nationaltheatre.org.uk