Review: (National Theatre, London)

What’s it all about?

This is Alice in Wonderland for the internet generation. Aly has moved to a new school. Her mother is preoccupied by her puking baby brother Charlie, her father is an unreliable vagabond, and her school life is made up of dodging bullies and psychotic headteachers. She takes refuge in an online game,, in which she creates an avatar so unlike herself and yet very like the Alice we know from Lewis Carroll’s original novel. In she is confident and popular and meets new people in the form of their own distinct avatars: the Mouse that’s 10 feet tall; the part bird, part superhero Dodo; the twin brothers (potentially sisters) Dee and Dum; the Mock Turtle who lives in a bin, and more. But after confiscating her phone, her headteacher Ms Manxome – also called Alice – takes control of the avatar and transforms her into the red queen, turning the friends against her. It becomes Aly’s own quest to retrieve her phone, and in an odd battle that takes place partly in the real world and partly in, and partly with some odd mutant zombies, she succeeds.

The words…

While the premise for is largely OK, and the modern take is somewhat inspired, Moira Buffini’s book is cumbersome at best. What starts off in the first act as a promising story of teenage angst, quickly dissolves into complete and utter tripe. Act two is all over the place, and by the time the zombies made their first appearance I realised that this had lost any focus and had simply become a series of odd fantasy sequences. It’s almost as if, when writing the beginning of the show, Buffini failed to bother understanding the resolution for each of the characters, so instead was left with a load of unresolved plot lines, and a quick win battle was the easiest way to conclude it all.

The talent…

Despite the very poor material, the cast do a decent job of making the most of it. Lois Chimimba as Aly plays a nice balance between stroppy and bullied teenager, while Carly Bawden as Alice is as cold and yet adorable as she needs to be to portray the blank canvas of the avatar. Aly’s parents both do a great job of showing exactly why they should never have been a couple in the first place; Golda Rusheuval as the despondent mother Bianca, and Paul Hilton as her Mr Wormwood-cum-Russell Brand father Matt. Finally, Hal Fowler brings the sass to the production as both the Cheshire Cat and the Caterpillar while getting to ride a mobility armchair and dress up in a ball of tinsel… In fact all of the supporting cast all do a fine job of bringing the characters to life in a convincing way, which is bordering on a miracle given the fact that many of them only have a few lines.

The music…

I’d like to say that the saving grace of the production is the music by Blur-alumni Damon Albarn, but that is just not the case. While, for the most part, the score is serviceable and plays along nicely with the action on stage, it does nothing to progress the narrative and, aside from the incredibly irritating title track, is largely unmemorable. It’s not all bad, though, and the duets between Aly and Alice in act one, and between Bianca and Matt in act two are both nice enough to listen to – I just can’t remember a single thing about them now. And despite glimmers of hope during a few bars within the battle song at the end, it ends up sounding like a complete mess with the different styles and layers competing with the chaos taking place on stage. A shame.

The design…

If there’s one part of the production that nearly succeeds it’s Rae Smith’s set designs along with the animations by 59 Productions. The set, made up of cold grey walls and high rise flats is contrasted with the onslaught of colour in the animations. The two work nicely together to show the opposing worlds of Aly’s reality and Alice’s, but I found myself wanting more. Yes, there is a giant motorised teapot that fires glitter, a tower block that rises up from within the stage floor and ejaculates zombies, a series of slightly pointless explosions, and enough tinsel to decorate the Southbank, but it feels light. These are moments of creativity amongst an altogether bland canvas – a problem I have had with all the Rufus Norris productions I have seen to date at the National. In short, the designs on stage never quite feel like they match the creativity in the animation behind, and I wanted far more interaction between the two rather than just in the introduction to in which Aly builds her avatar.

The special mention…

This has to go to Anna Francolini, who really is the highlight of the show, and despite also getting wrapped up in the chaos and stupidity of act two, manages to be both menacing and erratic without descending into a pantomime bad guy. Her voice is also the standout of the production and during her duet with Alice, as she unleashes the red queen, she helps lift the score from the blandness of the previous hour and a half.

Verdict: ★★☆☆☆

Unfortunately, the only wonder there is in is how on earth it managed to get a headlining spot for five months at the National. There’s a solid premise buried deep down amongst the oddball characters and teenage angst, but on this occasion one too many zombie fights and exploding teapots get in the way of it being any good. It’s absolutely nuts, and not in a fun way. is playing in the Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre until 30th April 2016. Tickets are available from the National Theatre website here.

And the view…

Stalls, Row C, Seat 11. As always in the Olivier, it was a completely uninterrupted view. However, this was my first time in the cheaper front three rows of the auditorium and I have to say I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be making a repeat visit. Luckily, I was on the end of the row, but these seats do not have arm rests so you are impossibly close to the people either side of you, and the legroom is far more restricted here than elsewhere in the auditorium. Still for a mere £15 they did the job nicely for this production – I’d just be very careful about sitting in them for anything with a longer running time.

Olivier Theatre, Stalls, Row C, Seat 11
Olivier Theatre, Stalls, Row C, Seat 11

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