wonder.land (National Theatre)

There’s something in the water on the Southbank.  It’s been 150 years since Charles Dodgson took up the name of Lewis Carroll and wrote ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’, vibrant, inventive and frankly mad novels which have puzzled and charmed children ever since.

Damon Albarn (formerly of Blur) has written the music for this new musical set squarely in the dot.com generation.  Lyrics, such as they are, for the songs are written by Moira Buffini, and direction is from Rufus Norris, the new incumbent as Artistic Director at the National Theatre.

A good pedigree, you might say, and with such a book as a springboard, could it really miss?  The trouble is, I don’t think it is mad enough – our heroine, Aly (Lois Chimimba) is a moody, mixed-race teenager with separated parents (her father is sort of the Mad Hatter as he has mental problems and, well, wears hats) and a baby brother who vomits over the stage.

Said baby brother is called Charlie which leads to a laboured act two song called, yes, ‘Everyone Loves Charlie’.  It’s about as far away from Jefferson Airplane’s druggily Alice inspired anthem ‘White Rabbit’ as you can get.

The other songs channel the Laughing Policeman, Chim Chim Cheree, and Knees Up Mother Brown, and where we have a bit of melody, such as avatar Alice singing about herself or the trippy and glittery green caterpillar asking ‘Who Are You’ in true Disney style, we are pulled up short and feel as if we have wandered into another show.

What plot there is centres on Aly entering the world of http://www.wonder.land, coaxed by the Cheshire Cat (Hal Fowler, who also plays the Caterpillar) in stunning digital graphics, of which I would have loved to have seen more.

She creates a Tenniel-perfect Alice as her alter ego (Carly Bawden) who starts off all fluffy and cute and then becomes an evil troll when turned into the Red Queen by the nasty and vicious headmistress Ms Manxome (see what they did there?  Manx.  Cat.  Ho.), played by Anna Francolini.  She’s fun, but too one-dimensional, and really, is someone evil because they want to stop a child playing on their phone during lessons?

In lip service to Carroll’s original, Dinah, Mary-Ann and Kitty are here transformed into bullies who torment Aly in the girls’ loos, while the Mock Turtle, Humpty, Dum and Dee and others are avatars her Alice encounters online.  They could be any characters, really, and the creators don’t seem to know what to do with them.

With special effects which seem set to disappoint – an early screen full of messages goes nowhere, and other opportunities are missed – poor songs, and a plot which tries to shoehorn in everything possible (including a gay guy and a zombie apocalypse), this show tries to dazzle but instead irritates.

It doesn’t fall into the ‘so bad it’s good’ camp.  It has no hummable tunes (but that’s sometimes OK, if the show is good enough).  It has some good costumes, and that Cheshire Cat animation is excellent, but it isn’t enough to save this from being a true Christmas turkey, despite the best efforts of its cast.

All glitter on the outside with nothing inside, I’m afraid.