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The Theatreguide.London Review

Olivier Theatre  Winter 2015-2016

The National Theatre's holiday show is an exercise in what might have been, in not quite good enough, and in the dangers of lily-gilding. 

It's not a total failure I saw a midweek matinee with an audience full of school groups and families, and the kids were strikingly un-squirmy but you keep catching brief glimpses of how much better it could have been. 

Certainly the generating concept of Alice In Cyberland was just waiting for someone to think of it. But Moira Buffini (book and lyrics), Damon Albarn (music) and Rufus Norris (director and co-creator) were not inclined merely to translate Lewis Carroll into twenty-first century terms, and so they bury the original under several additional layers of plot and deeper significances. 

Their heroine Ali is a modern unhappy and bullied teenager who stumbles on an online game. She creates as her avatar (Note to those over 30: in some games the players choose or build animated characters to represent them onscreen) a blonde Barbie doll type named Alice and meets some of the other online players in their avatar forms. 

Together they go on a quest whose goal is hinted at in the Caterpillar's question 'Who are you?' - that is, they will learn to be happier with who they are in real life. 

Some, but not all of the other avatars resemble Carroll characters, and some of the game levels are very loosely based on Carroll episodes. 

Meanwhile, in real life a nasty schoolmistress confiscates Ali's phone, discovers the game, takes control of the Alice character and somehow turns her into the Red Queen determined to take control of wonder.land. So Ali has to fight her both in cyberspace and real life.

It's not as clever or as coherent as I may have made it sound it's a mess. And I haven't even got to Ali's separated parents, their separate problems, the gay schoolmate, the several school bullies or the other game players and their real-life woes. 

It is clear that the creators of the show wanted to use Carroll merely as a base on which to build the modern play about Ali and the other 'real' characters. But in the process Alice In Wonderland is almost completely lost, and the two plot lines just keep getting in each other's way. 

The shadows of Wicked and Matilda hang heavily over this show, the first for a much more inventive and evocative development of the original story, the second for a much more successful and entertaining version of the unhappy schoolgirl and nasty schoolmistress plot and both for better songs. 

Too much of Damon Albarn's score sounds like song lead-ins determinedly resisting any temptation to break into actual melody, and when he does offer potentially good tunes, they tend to be yoked to Buffini's weakest lyrics. 

Meanwhile there are some basic errors in musical theatre construction. The show's big emotional duet is given to the minor characters of Ali's parents, and the big dramatic solo goes to the villainous schoolmistress, while Ali herself is musically little more than a featured chorus member. 

Director Rufus Norris fills the large Olivier stage with people and images, and Rae Smith's design includes some very impressive self-propelled furniture that zooms about like fairground bumper cars. 

But too often the full stage looks just randomly cluttered with people not sure where they should be standing, and some very impressive video projections by 59 Productions are in an entirely different style from Smith's sets or Katrina Lindsay's costumes, as if the three departments had never consulted. 

Lois Chimimba makes Ali attractively spunky without hiding her teenage brat side, and Anna Francolini has fun playing the schoolmistress as Cruella DeVille. Hal Fowler plays the high-camp Cheshire Cat and the high-camp Caterpillar exactly the same.

Gerald Berkowitz

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