December 18, 2015
  • Rating: ★★★☆☆
National Theatre takes as its starting point that the world inside our smartphones, with its cat memes and its gaudy virtual worlds, is as mad as a hatter. Mad as the Hatter, in fact. The Alice in this production doesn’t tumble into a literal rabbit-hole: she falls into the world of chatrooms and role playing games.

Transferring to London after a short run in Manchester, this wildly ambitious project brings together the National Theatre’s artistic director Rufus Norris (director), Blur singer Damon Albarn (tunes) and writer Moira Buffini (lyrics).

Alice, or Aly as she prefers to be known, is a disillusioned teenager struggling to come to terms with her parents’ break-up. Her world is a grey dystopia, an inner-city nightmare of tangled pylons and brutalist skyscrapers. At school she’s plagued by bullies who communicate in yoof speak, wear onesies and indulge in other cliches associated with wayward teens.

So Aly escapes into the glossy, neon world of, a psychedelic World of Warcraft, where she imagines herself as a beautiful, busty blonde (she’s mixed race); a hen-party version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Here she befriends a cast of freaks and geeks – each of whom channels a Carroll character – who offer each other support, like a digital self-help group where everyone’s in fancy dress. Things go sour when Aly’s teacher, who bears a striking resemblance to Cruella De Vil, confiscates her phone.

The production is spectacular: projections create a giant Cheshire Cat that appears to be a three dimensional presence on stage; the caterpillar is imagined as a kind of sequinned human centipede; the white rabbit is a mash-up of Deadmau5 and Frank from Donnie Darko, jittering across the stage like Pac-Man.

Everything moves and bleeps and flashes. Buildings rise and fall from nowhere; furniture drives around of its own accord; characters fly and dance through the air. It’s all very impressive.

It’s just a shame about the music. Albarn’s score, which takes elements from vaudeville and electronica, is what you might charitably call functional. It gets the gist of the story across, sets a vague tone for each scene and takes you from one set piece to the next, without hitting upon a single catchy tune. The universally talented cast make the most of the material, and it’s never exactly dull, just not as interesting as you’d expect from this all-star team.

First published in City A.M.