‘It’s a bit more Monty Python than Disney’
Possessed with a richly fertile imagination, he constantly nurtures a mind-boggling range of produce. Blur, Gorillaz, The Good, the Bad & the Queen, solo recordings, Africa Express and ambitious stage enterprises.
This year, he’s tended to a blooming brilliant new Blur album, The Magic Whip, but his primary focus is wonder.land, a musical that re-imagines Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland.
It premiered at Manchester International Festival in the summer but has since evolved into a fully realised state-of-the-art production at The National Theatre, London.
“It has become a solid entity,” he affirms this week. “We’ve been working slavishly towards that goal and we’re hugely proud of it.”
As with all things Damon, wonder.land is a collaborative exercise.
“I think everyone’s work is collaborative,” he says. “It’s just that some people are less willing to admit how much people help them.”
He wrote the score while Moira Buffini, whose previous credits include screen adaptations of Tamara Drewe and Jane Eyre, provided the script and song lyrics.
Concentrating on the music proved a liberating experience for Damon as he explains: “I’ve loved working with Moira and it improved my craftsmanship. I would definitely work with her again. It’s given me another dimension to what I do. The trick for me now is can I go back to writing pop songs? Is that possible now? But as long as I’m in a position to write music, I’m a happy bunny really, or should I say white rabbit!”
The production reunites Damon with director Rufus Norris, following their Dr Dee opera about the life of Elizabeth 1’s occult-obsessed scientific advisor. They faced the daunting task of turning Alice, the ultimate piece of Victorian nonsense literature, into a modern-day, coming-of-age drama with a strong narrative and catchy songs.
Crucially, they needed to find the ideal person to play Aly, a 21st century Alice struggling to cope with online bullying, her family falling apart and a waspish schoolteacher.
And they found one . . . 22-year-old Glaswegian Lois Chimimba, who turns in a mesmerising performance, by turns vulnerable and feisty.
Her character’s opportunity to escape her drab, miserable life, i.e. her rabbit hole or looking glass, comes through her smart phone.
Her portal to a happier, brightly coloured world is an app called wonder.land, a psychedelic digital playground where she encounters a cast of madcap cyber friends.
Of Lois, Damon says: “She’s getting better and better, so I’ve got absolute faith in her. She’s not like your conventional stage musical actress. She’s much more real than that. This is her.
“My dream is that this comes out of the National Theatre and travels around the country. There’s a very passionate audience out there waiting to connect with what this particular piece says.”
As for working with Rufus, he adds: “I love working with him. I love the atmosphere he’s created in this place. It’s very positive and reflects what our society is like. Can I say it is far less white and middle class there now and that is a very positive thing.”
Also key to wonder.land are stunning visuals with giant vibrant video projections recreating a computer game world. There’s also fantastical physical characters in flamboyant costumes such as the Aly’s Alice avatar, who appears in both blue and red, the camp caterpillar and the nasty teacher turned Queen Of Hearts.
With all that in mind, my own rabbit hole proves to be the deeper recesses of the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. After finding my way through a warren of back offices, I find myself sitting opposite Rufus, recently appointed the theatre’s artistic director, and Damon.
It’s clear from meeting them that a huge amount of hard work has gone into improving and fine tuning wonder.land in the months since its debut appearance.
Rufus says: “Doing a new musical is the hardest art form. This one is a reference to Alice but not an adaptation because Carroll doesn’t give any narrative. We’ve had to invent it all.”
“It’s been rewritten and rewritten. Since Manchester, there is no scene and no song that is untouched¿ apart from maybe a couple of songs.”
I remember Damon once telling me that he sang all the parts to himself, to get into the mood of the characters, while he was developing the score.
Now he reveals: “Everything’s been recorded by me at some point and hidden away in a dark cellar somewhere. I feel really strongly that this is a new kind of musical that abandons the clichés of pretty much everything else out there. That might be a very stupid decision on my behalf or it might be the thing that ultimately gives it genuine life.”
Growing up, Damon loved Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and Disney’s superlative musical animation The Jungle Book but he sees wonder.land’s music as “Monty Python” . . . quirky but with definite nods to the British music hall tradition.
“There’s a strong London element as well,” he decides. “I’ve always felt very connected to music halI guess one the most difficult problems facing wonder.land’s creators was tapping into the mindset of a 14-year-old girl in 2015 Britain.
Damon, 47, remembers what it was like to be in his early teens: “I saw my friends like once or twice a week if I was lucky. And I would never ring them and go, ‘You all right? What did you have for tea?”
“When you were actually allowed access to girls, it was at the disco or youth club. You had until 11pm and then it was over. If you hadn’t got anywhere by then, that was it for a month maybe.”
He had to wind forward to a world in which teenagers have hundreds of “friends” through social media sites such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook.
“Now they can talk to each other all the time through their phones and those layers of intimacy peel away far more gradually.”
Rufus explains wonder.land’s genesis: “The first discussions were very emotional because Damon, Moira and myself all have kids who are absolutely in Aly’s bracket. The first time I introduced Moira to Damon, we went round to his studio and sat in his kitchen. I said, ‘Ok, what’s the starting point?’ And he just took his phone out and he said, ‘Well there’s the rabbit hole.’ And we went, ‘Ok, good, great.’
“That made perfect sense and then we exchanged a few stories about our children and their relationships with the modern, online world, all of which were quite amusing and scary and funny.
“There’s no question about it that our kids are way, way ahead of us. We’ll never catch up with them. l and I’ve tried to give a strong flavour of that.”
Damon adds: “The way we play it, you can really see how the story is perfect for these strange online adventures that kids go on.
“For me the Duchess, even though she’s not in our version, is a perfect example of the more sinister side of social networks in the sense that you can’t really read who someone is. Modern kids have to navigate dark, murky places.”
Speaking of dark places, wonder.land has an unflinching take on the original Alice’s classic “off with their heads!” scene.
Without giving too much plot away, a major character is beheaded. Could this be seen as provocative in light of what’s been happening in Iraq and Syria?
Rufus believes the medium of theatre should keep it real. “There’s a fantastic tradition of musical theatre in this country,” he says.
“But, increasingly, there’s a tendency to patronise and make everything saccharine for the sake of appealing to mass audiences.
“The problem with the form is it’s very expensive to develop so, historically, the only people who do it are commercial producers. They can’t really take very many risks.”
Another scene features male lead Luke Laprel, played with great verve by Enyi Okoronkwo, immersed in a zombie shoot ’em up game.
Rufus says: “The other day someone asked me to consider removing the zombie scene because Luke is shooting a lot of people in the wake of Paris.
“We also had to adjust the heights of the two big towers (in the beheading scene) to make them a bit more different because they looked like the Twin Towers.”
Damon peers out of the window, across the Thames to the City of London, and adds: “But you could say that about those two towers over there. You could say that about anyone playing Call Of Duty or whatever.”
Rufus again: “These kids are inured to pretend violence because of stupid games and then when the real thing happens, it’s incredibly shocking.”
I ask if they think children lose their innocence too early because of the internet. “Every age looks on its youth as losing its innocence,” says Damon.
“My dad’s parents thought the Sixties was the end of the world and now we look at it as this rather quaint, gentle period. We seem to panic over the absence of tradition.”
Finally, I ask Damon what he’s gained from the wonder.land experience.
“This really, really excites me to make more of a narrative for the next Gorillaz album,” he enthuses. “Give it a real story from beginning to end and give each character a real voice and a singing voice as well.”
Next up, it seems, might well be a Gorillaz record and working with long-time associate Jamie Hewlett, the man behind the artwork.
That’s certainly on the way but Damon says: “I’ve also got a Good, the Bad and the Queen record (the supergroup including The Clash’s Paul Simonon, The Verve’s Simon Tong and Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen.)
“It will either be Gorillaz or that and then I might be allowed to go back into my own solo world or another musical. I’d love to do another musical to be honest with you. I love doing them, it’s just brilliant. I love being here.”
“It’s been a dream since I was a kid. We’d get driven in from Leytonstone and go to the other side of the Embankment and look up at the National Theatre’s flashing display.”
So give wonder.land a go. By the end, you’ll be grinning like a Cheshire Cat.