Entertainment & Arts

Damon Albarn 'disappoints' with Alice in Wonderland musical

A scene from wonder.land Image copyright Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
Image caption wonder.land features reinvented versions of Lewis Carroll's characters

Damon Albarn's Alice in Wonderland-inspired musical prompted a standing ovation on its opening night at the Manchester International Festival.

Yet early reviews have not been as welcoming of wonder.land, for which the Blur frontman wrote the music.

The show tells the story of a 21st Century teen who immerses herself in a psychedelic online game.

Albarn played a short surprise set after Thursday's premiere on an outdoor stage in Manchester's Albert Square.

Directed by the National Theatre's Rufus Norris, wonder.land features many of the outlandish creatures from Lewis Carroll's Alice books.

However, according to the BBC's Vincent Dowd, Moira Buffini's book and lyrics only use Carroll's work "as a starting point".

Its heroine Aly is an inner-city teenager who takes refuge from her troubled life at home and school by entering a virtual world.

Dowd said the show "was billed in advance as being about the role of the internet in our lives" but is "really about... being a teenager".

Image caption Albarn played three songs in his short open-air set

Albarn himself has said the story of wonder.land is "very different" from the Carroll's original story and the show was "bound to be a little controversial".

The show would not be like many modern musicals, he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme, which he said were "homogenous".

In his three-star review in the Daily Telegraph, critic Dominic Cavendish called wonder.land "disappointing" and "lacking in the wonder stuff".

Albarn's score, he wrote, "isn't much cop", going on to say "many of the songs drift in one ear and out the other".

"Albarn's music makes a somewhat ponderous and even analogue start," wrote the Daily Mail's Patrick Marmion in his three-star critique.

"There are only glimpses of the anthemic melancholy that made Albarn's name. But his score is no more hit and miss than Norris's production."

Image copyright Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
Image caption Rosalie Craig (left) plays a virtual avatar of the musical's heroine Aly

The Stage's Mark Shenton struck a more positive note, praising the show's "brilliantly vivid projections" and "stunningly costumed creatures".

The show, he wrote in his three-star review, "is as playful as it is frequently peculiar" and "overall... fantastically strange".

The Manchester Evening News, meanwhile, gave the show a rave review, calling it "a dizzying spectacle with a young and contemporary message".

The musical, wrote Sarah Walters, is "surreal, silly [and] super charged with energy" and "loses none of the madness" of Carroll's originals.

wonder.land runs in Manchester until 12 July, transfers to the National Theatre in London in November and has a Paris run scheduled in 2016.

Albarn's previous stage ventures include Monkey: Journey to the West, a Chinese opera that had its premiere at the first Manchester International Festival in 2007.

He and Norris also premiered Dr Dee, an opera about the 16th Century alchemist and astrologer John Dee, at the 2011 edition of the biennial arts event.

Analysis by Vincent Dowd, BBC World Service

wonder.land really only takes Lewis Carroll's extraordinary 150-year-old work as a starting point. The central character Aly (played by Lois Chimimba) is a teenage girl from a troubled family who encounters her avatar Alice online.

The designs by Rae Smith (who designed War Horse) are witty and colourful: working with 59 Productions she reaches a new level of stage magic. But all ears will be on Damon Albarn's score.

Though there are a few echoes of the Blur years, Albarn has worked to develop a new idiom for the stage. There are hints of Broadway sweetness but also something more acerbic. If Walt Disney had commissioned Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht to write the songs for Mary Poppins, the score might have turned out this way.

At times you feel the actors wanting to soar in song but the notes aren't quite there. Chimimba as headstrong but actually quite sensible Aly does well, as does Rosalie Craig who has fun as Aly's online self.

But the show is stolen by Anna Francolini as school headmistress Ms Manxome. Imagine a combination of Cruella de Vil, Matilda's Agatha Trunchbull and Lady Thatcher.

wonder.land was billed in advance as being about the role of the internet in our lives. But it's really about that troublesome, tangled thing - being a teenager.

The central moment is when the caterpillar asks Alice - and all of us - "Who are you?"

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