Why Christmas shows are going down a psychedelic rabbit hole

Published in The Independent on Sunday on December 4, 2015

At no other time of the year are family-friendly shows more welcome than at Christmas. Yet it’s also often a time of boringly traditional, bankable fare. Panto reigns and theatre can tend towards the literary, twee and old-fashioned: Dickensian orphans in the faux snow, endless visits to Narnia and Neverland. This year, however, there’s a sleigh-full of alternative shows hurtling down a distinctly psychedelic rabbit hole.

The Old Vic take on Dr. Seuss’s surreal environmental fable The Lorax; National Theatre Wales turn Gruff Rhys’s 2007 album Candylion into a tale of eccentric creatures, while Damon Albarn’s wonder.land at the National Theatre is an updating of Alice in Wonderland that whisks audiences inside a crazily colourful internet. And there are striking similarities in aesthetic approach: all three have trippy visuals and music by some of our most inventive pop stars.

The Lorax, published in 1971, tells the story of a squat critter who tries to stop the Once-ler – a dark-green, barely seen character – from chopping down Truffula trees and polluting his pristine valley. The greedy Once-ler keeps building more factories, driving away fish, bears and birds, and angering the little Lorax.

But this is no dour environmental lecture: it’s classic Dr. Seuss, full of hot colours and swirling shapes. David Grieg has adapted it, entirely in rhyme – and Charlie Fink, formerly of folk-pop band Noah and the Whale, has scored the music. “The story is really about the growth of America, the industrial revolution… so the songs build through the 20th century,” explains Fink. “It starts with a work song, then rootsy folk, Motown, and a few surprises…”

It may be an all-ages show, but the creative team is careful never to patronise their audience. “It’s not like we target kids – children smell that straight away,” claims designer Rob Howell, who designed Matilda The Musical.

His task was to bring Dr. Seuss’s much-loved, illustrations to life without being in hock to 2D cartoons. “The illustrations are so famous and so wonderful – but just to stand the book up is not interesting,” explains Howell, before assuring me that the “dazzling palate”, at least, will very much be recreated.

Soft Truffula trees in eye-popping colours will grow on stage, and the Lorax is fabulous – an adorably expressive creation courtesy of puppet-company Gyre & Gimble. Meanwhile, the Once-ler – and extended family – are played by actors in eccentric, entirely green, outfits.

“This is one of those projects that don’t come round that often,” says Howell. “A world is created, every single detail. You often hear that Dr. Seuss never drew a straight line – that might not be true, but it’s liberating. You can do anything.”

Lysander Ashton is the creative director of 59 Productions – video projection mavens who had an equivalently broad brief when creating a modern Wonderland at the National Theatre. “It was such a brilliantly open canvas really; the challenge was finding a particular language to make it unique.”

wonder.land, performed earlier this year at the Manchester International Festival, is a collaboration between Albarn and the National’s artistic director, Rufus Norris. Its latest incarnation is apparently much reworked, but it still hangs on their initial light-bulb moment: the internet is the rabbit-hole Alice plunges down.

“What Lewis Carroll gives you is a bunch of fantastic icons and a central theme, of a young girl trying to find out who she is,” suggests Norris – but what it lacks is a clear, emotional narrative. To counter this, wonder.land centres on Aly, a mixed-up teenager who finds solace in creating an avatar named Alice in an online game. This informed all aspects of design and music. The show mixes live action and projections, with an online world vividly realised through pixelated platform games, swirling 3D animation, and elaborately costumed actors.

“We looked a lot at the online community – particularly kids’ ones like [social networking game] Habbo Hotel and these weird chat forums. They’re in primary colours and gruesome to look at – super shiny! But we didn’t want the whole thing to be repulsive; it had to be a place that you really wanted to be in,” explains Ashton.

Alice in Wonderland has long been a source of inspiration for artists in all media – often celebrating its psychedelic and surreal elements. “That trippiness is at the heart of the text,” agrees Ashton. And when I suggest that Alice can be quite dark – and that that’s something both adults and children seem to respond to – he agrees. “Our Cheshire Cat is exactly that: gorgeous and exciting but also a bit suspect. He’s smiley, but he’s got very big teeth… You absolutely need that scariness, otherwise it would become very cloying – a cutesy, colourful world.”

Albarn’s music is, of course, also a draw for fans that might not normally go to a family show or musical. “But it’s not about putting Blur or Gorillaz on stage,” insists Norris. “Harnessing Damon’s [skill] at writing a tune for narrative is very exciting.”

A similar process has been taking place in Cardiff, where Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys has been working with National Theatre Wales (NTW) on their Christmas show: a theatre gig called The Insatiable, Inflatable Candylion. “Gruff’s songs have got a lot of story and character, so it feels natural to take it one step further,” says the show’s director, Wils Wilson. “We wanted to do something almost like a fable.”

Many hybrid creatures – such as Polar Pear and Sledgehog – live in the fantastical Pixel Valley, a community based on positive vibes. Until, that is, Candylion arrives… “It’s looking at how do you live together, how do you organise a community, but in a very playful, fun way. It’s got a couple of levels you can read it on.”

This was something that struck Rhys when he first toured the Candylion album: “People were bringing their kids to shows. I had no interest in trying to write for children: these songs have accidentally resonated, and I was excited to explore that.” He’ll perform every night, narrating the story as part of a cast of 10 actor-musicians, who dress up as the eccentric creatures.

Like wonder.land, the show mixes the technological with the biological in creating the valley. “The shapes are quite organic, and the pixels are spherical, almost like fruit – but the colours are certainly quite psychedelic, and hyper-real,” says Wilson. Rhys worked on the original concept with Pete Fowler and Mark James, who have designed Super Furries’ artwork, to give the show an appealingly colourful, cartoonish aspect – but Disney, this isn’t. They’re even resisting the term “musical”. “There’s the rawness of a gig that’s very different to the polish you’d expect of a musical,” says Wilson.

“There’s a lot of pressure on theatre companies at Christmas time, so hats off to [NTW artistic director] John McGrath for providing something alternative,” she adds. “Some people absolutely want a conventional Christmas experience, and that’s great, but there’s also so many people who want something a bit different.”

‘The Lorax’ is at the Old Vic, London, to 16 Jan (oldvictheatre.com); ‘wonder.land’ is at the National Theatre, London, to 30 Apr (nationaltheatre.org.uk); The Insatiable, Inflatable Candylion is at the SSE SWALEC Stadium, Cardiff, 16 Dec-2 Jan (nationaltheatrewales.org).

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