Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 12th December 2015.
There is really only one reason to see this show, and that is Anna Francolini, who makes a valiant effort to inject some life into it. Sadly the material is too weak, and she is not on stage enough to succeed. After the experience of Dr Dee (Damon Albarn's last foray into musical theatre and one of the many nails in English National Opera's coffin) my hopes were not high (and fell further after reviews of the initial run at the Manchester International Festival), but I didn't think it would be quite so dull and too often cringe-inducing as this.
The show is dramatically inert. The plot moves forward with a slowness that is at times desperate (when I first glanced at my watch and saw only 25 minutes had passed I knew we were in for a painful afternoon). It is about the putting back together of Aly's (Lois Chimimba) family, and getting Aly to value herself as she is (the show has a terrible tendency to hit the audience over the head regarding this point). Aly achieves this first by retreating into the world of on-line gaming (where she creates an avatar (Alice)) and the show inadequately connects with its source material) and finally by renouncing this world. Oh and there's an attempt at a villain in the form of Francolini's Ms Manxome – an unhinged headmistress. None of the interactions, characters, or relationships are given any meaningful depth by text or music, though Francolini almost deceived me at times.
There are also problematic treatments of race and gender issues: the black Aly's desire for a white avatar is never critiqued and why does Aly's mother pretty much end up apologising to her father as if she not he were responsible for the collapse of the family unit (when it seems perfectly clear that it was his unconfessed gambling which precipitated it). The treatment of the only powerful woman (Francolini's Ms Manxome) is also troubling it being implied that despite that power as headmistress what she really wants is a man. Possibly the show is trying to say something clever about the relationship between virtual and real worlds. If so, it fails, and an additional frustration here is that the virtual world is so feebly realised – only in the zombie scene does it really come to life.
As if all this were not enough book and lyrics suffer from some truly painful rhymes and metaphors (the metaphors about rivers/speaking and about the fragments of a family were particular egregious, likewise the string of rhymes inflicted on Francolini's exit culminating in a “shite” which I suspect Buffini like many modern writers thought was funny/provocative but is just tiresome). Albarn's music is similarly undistinguished and unmemorable (one review claimed audiences will be leaving the theatre singing the “Everybody Loves Charlie” number – I beg to differ).
The production team makes some attempt to disguise the weakness of the show by throwing money at the problem through elaborate costumes, moveable sets, confetti cannon, hanging a variety of people from wires – to little avail. Javier de Frutos is not given much help by the music but demonstrates again that his forte really isn't the big chorus number. 59 Productions contribute a familiar busyness but bear some responsibility for the visual weakness of the fantasy world.
Apart from Francolini no other performer really rises above the material, though Cydney Uffindell-Phillips deserves an award for dancing in difficult circumstances (she is dressed as a dustbin and calls herself the Mock Turtle...yes the connection escaped me as well – I was reminded of Donald Swann's explanation for no show ever picking up their song Pillar to Post because performers were afraid that dressed as a pillar box they wouldn't be able to do their dance).
Altogether this is another weak show in what has been, from where I've been sitting, a weak opening nine months for Rufus Norris. I suspect had Albarn not been attached to it, it would never have reached the stage. It is scheduled to run until April (pity the poor cast stuck in it). It is a nice question whether it will.