What is interesting about a lot of musical theatre productions these days is that they seem to be adaptations of something or other, or use something else as a springboard for their own work. wonder.land, as the name suggests, uses Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as the stimulus, but this time the rabbit hole is a mobile phone. This brings the performance bang up to date with contemporary times…or it supposedly does.
Without giving too much away, the plot revolves around a teenager called Aly (Lois Chimimba), who is having a difficult time with both her split parents and bullies at her new school, and so uses a new game on her phone – the titular wonder.land as an escape from reality. In this game she can be who she wants, in both looks and personality. There’s a touch on race and weight here, as the black, chubby Aly chooses to look “completely unlike herself” in her online avatar of Alice – the blonde haired, thin, extremely feminine character of Carroll’s Alice we all know. The narrative runs with two parts – Aly’s grey reality, and the colourful, strange world of the game, in which she meets other teenagers like her (based on other Wonderland characters), and the two world inevitably collide, but of course everything turns out alright again, the day is saved by a selfie stick, and Aly learns “who she is”.
I credit the writers for this not being a preachy “the internet/technology is bad” show. In fact, it doesn’t give a straightforward opinion. It actually acknowledges that technology is something we all use and is just a new part of our lives. The Cheshire Cat(erpillar) at the beginning, when delivering the usual spiel about turning phones off actually said a list of things usually prohibited, but ended with “are, simply, faaaabulous” which caused quite a few laughs from the audience before the show suddenly hurtled into its opening song.
Technology itself is abundant in this show, and it’s obvious a lot of budget was put into the visual and special effects. A track which furniture moved on in the shape of the Cheshire cat’s face covered the stage, there was numerous pyrotechnics, and a glitter cannon in a giant teapot to finish act one (I need one of those in my life)were some of the larger effects. However, sometimes it all felt a bit too much. I understand the atmosphere they were attempting to create, to create the modern version of Wonderland, but sometimes it felt a bit pointless and too much of an attempt to use as much technology as possible. The swegway and a throwing-up baby were the final straw for me in this department.
The standout scene for me was when Aly was creating her avatar of Alice in the game. Projections were used to an advantage and looked incredibly realistic of a fantasy game world, which saw her character forming. The transition of seeing the projected character transform into the real Alice (played by Carly Bawden) suspended on a wire in the air. Bawden’s physicality was stunning to watch, moving as if in a video game, static and restricted, with a chipper yet robotic voice to match.
In terms of characters, they were well-cast and I don’t think I can fault any actors’ performance, but overall they felt very underdeveloped. Despite it being Aly’s story, I didn’t feel any real connection to her, even despite a similarity in age. There were some great themes touched upon, from Aly’s friends both in-game and in reality, such as LGBT+ (mainly being homosexual and transgender), race, abusive/alcoholic parents, eating disorders, and online pornography. It’s a shame that these themes weren’t explored further , but this brings me on to the target audience.
At first glance at the marketing materials, I thought this would be a show for children and teens. The performance had a lot of rude language, from ‘bitch’, ‘fuck’, ‘slag’, and mentions of sex, and ‘penis envy’ which perhaps would be unsuitable for young children. During the show I heard a young boy from the stalls copying the actors shouting “you bitch!” which was awkward to say the least. However, if the show was for teens, there were some incredibly cringe-y attempts at being modern. The use of the words “minger” and “whatever” was reminiscent of the early noughties and some of the threats from the school bullies were textbook rather than realistic.
Overall I’d say the show was enjoyable, if a bit unrealistic (nobody I know is that obsessed with technology) and pantomime-esque, and I could not hum a note of the music afterwards, so perhaps the adaptation would work much better as a play. However, I fully enjoyed the show’s technical and visual elements – a feast for the eyes – and applaud the team for creating a show from a Victorian stimulus in such a creative and contemporary way.