★★★★ | wonder.land, Manchester International Festival

Now in its tenth year, the Manchester International Festival is a biannual showcase for newly commissioned work by leading artists from all around the world.

One of 2015’s biggest shows is wonder.land, a new musical featuring music by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame.

wonder.land, a new take on the classic story of Alice In Wonderland, tells the story of Aly. Aly is a lonely teenage girl, recently moved to a new area after the bitter split of her parents. Bullied at school and feeling neglected by her mother due to her baby brother, one day she stumbles across wonder.land, a website promising escape into a virtual world. Creating an avatar called Alice, in this world, Ali makes new friends and some refuge from her loneliness until the day her headmistress, Ms. Manxome confiscates her mobile phone and she is denied access to the game. Before long, Aly finds herself fighting for her existence in the game after her identity is stolen and her virtual friends turn against her.

The story of Alice in Wonderland has long been one of the most loved and iconic of children’s books. This version, with themes of online gambling addiction, bullying and fractured families is a fiercely contemporary adaption. Elements of the Lewis Caroll tale remain but with a modern twist. For example, the Mad Hatter becomes Matt Hatton, Aly’s recovering gaming addict dad with a history of mental illness.

If this sounds all a bit worthy then luckily wonder.land has enough sly wit and playfulness to prevent it feel like a preachy night at the theatre. The innovative design, mixing 3 dimensional back projection with moveable sets creating the two different worlds of the show also added a huge amount of visual excitement.

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wonder.land is not without flaws. The music, a combination of traditional musical theatre orchestration and electronica is pleasant if not especially memorable and the big climatic showdown between Ali and the villainous Ms Manxome feels rather rushed. This is not to deny however that this is a bold, exciting and original piece of work.

In a strong ensemble cast, it was Anna Francolini who was the performance of the evening as Ms Manxome, this version’s Red Queen. Ms Manxome is an old fashioned big barnstormer of a role that it’s very easy to see musical theatre actresses of a certain age fighting to play. Francolini attacks the part with swagger and enormous charisma.

Special mention must also go to Rosalie Craig in the lead role of Ali, who brings huge quantities of vulnerability to her performance matched by a strong singing voice. Her complicated relationships with her parents and budding friendship with Luke, himself a target for homophobic bullying, are affecting and powerfully portrayed.

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For all it’s modern trappings, at its heart wonder.land is a story about family and the quest for self-esteem. Lewis Carroll purists may very well hate it but plenty other will relate to its warmth, wit and the timeless themes under the hi-tech surface.

Palace Theatre, Manchester
2nd to 12th July 2015

About the author: Richard Glen
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