Alice in the Apple Store

By Maconie, Stuart | New Statesman (1996), July 10, 2015 | Go to article overview

Alice in the Apple Store


Maconie, Stuart, New Statesman (1996)


wonder.land

Palace Theatre, Manchester M1

Tree of Codes

Manchester Opera House, Manchester M3

It came as something of a shock for us fans of the city's creative sons and daughters, be they Harrison Birtwistle, Factory Records, L S Lowry, Shelagh Delaney, Anthony Burgess or the Hollies, to pluck out a few at random, to be told by the French theatre director Jean-Luc Choplin that, before the launch of the Manchester International Festival, "For the world at least, Manchester was previously just a city for soccer, not at all a cultural city ... Suddenly with MIF, it is very clear that Manchester now belongs in the cultural map of the world."

"MIF" is a biennial celebration of original works across theatre, dance, music and art, and whilst Choplin might have hit a bum note even if he meant well, there is no doubt that the festival has brought exciting new work to a city well used to making its own. The current MIF will be the last for its founding director, Alex Poots, who is leaving to launch an arts centre in Manhattan. In a round of valedictory interviews, Poots defended himself against not unreasonable charges that MIF relies too much on a handful of associated artists and performers by pointing out that, once forged, these relationships should be nurtured and exploited creatively. Two such artists, both from the world of modern British pop, were involved in the opening nights of this year's festival--Damon Albarn and Jamie xx.

Choplin made his remarks after working with Albarn on the opera Monkey for MIF in 2007. After that came the Blur frontman's Elizabethan masque Dr Dee, and now what is billed as a "family-friendly musical", wonder.land, an updating of Lewis Carroll's enduring fantasy, to coincide with its 150th anniversary. That dot is a telling piece of punctuation. At an early meeting about the project between the composer, the lyricist Moira Buffini and the director Rufus Norris, Albarn apparently pointed to his smartphone and said, "That's the rabbit hole." In this reboot, Alice is "Aly", an African-Caribbean schoolgirl from an urban area, escaping school woes and domestic chaos through her devices. She creates a daringly un-PC avatar in the form of Alice of the classic Tenniel illustrations: a prim and pretty Caucasian princess in nursery finery. Yet the online world is no cosier than Aly's domestic realm and the two overlap and meld as, in one instance, her martinet headmistress morphs into the Queen of Hearts. All of this is conjured with fabulous projections and sets and performances of verve, especially by Lois Chimimba and Anna Francolini. The Cheshire Cat is nicely louche, in human and projected form, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee are nicely peevish.

When, at the height of the Britpop madness, Liam Gallagher dismissed Albarn's work as "chimney-sweep music", it was a cheeky but baseless gibe. Here, it wouldn't have been so amiss. Albarn clearly revels in his love of Lionel Bart, Joan Littlewood and his teenage years in musical theatre. The Mad Hatter's Tea Party sets the tone for a second half that often has the ghost of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins hanging over it. …

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