Operation Wonderland

Liz Tomlin
Point Blank at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

April Fool's Day is the perfect day for the start of Operation Wonderland's run at the Traverse Theatre. Between mentally deranged Jed, a blue-gowned fairy, and omnipresent Whispering Mice, this political take on the damage done by a Disney-like conglomerate makes for a surreal night out.

The piece tries to ask what it takes to push someone to a point where they are willing to sacrifice the lives of others for the sake of a cause. It's an interesting question, but by taking the debate out of reality and moving it into a stylized, commercialized, malevolent Amusement Park, writer and director Liz Tomlin has made it difficult for audiences to separate straightforward fantasy from critique of reality.

Jenny Ayres is delightful as the Blue Fairy, a sort of Tinkerbell-gone-mad. She eggs Jed (Steward Lodge) on through the performance, manipulating him through lies and expert storytelling into turning his sensitivity and desperation into violent ends. There are enough hints to indicate that the Blue Fairy is simply a figment of Jed's imagination, which feels in many ways like a missed opportunity. After all, madmen can do anything; it's far scarier when multiple, seemingly lucid people can maintain the frenzied state of commitment required to kill innocent people (and despite the bargain the Blue Fairy strikes, the people who will die at Jed's hands would not be found guilty of serious crimes in any international court of law).

The set (designed by Richard Lowden) is stylish but a bit nondescript, in that it could be selected from the "Garbage Depot" page in an Ikea catalogue. This works, given Wonderland's status as a faceless company, and the two huge garbage bins that serve as the furniture/set dressing are definitely an original touch.

Overall, Operation Wonderland is an interesting piece, but it's a bit tame; since news broke several years ago about the backstage going-ons at the Disney theme parks, there's nothing shocking about a Blue Fairy who swears. Creepy moments include discussions of a 1984-style surveillance system (though in this day of CCTV it's hard to see how staff at a children's resort could possibly think they wouldn't be on tape all the time).

On this note, the piece actually does a better job talking about the indignities suffered by low-paid workers in the world of customer service than of discussing the struggle between the privileged western world and the third-world citizens whose economies are oppressed by the free market.

In the real world, these workers do everything from sweeping floors and restocking shelves to suffering verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse at the hands of their customers. In Tomlin's world, those customers simply do not care about the treatment of either these often low-paid workers, or the people who created the goods they're dumping on the floor, pulling off shelves, or abusing fellow human beings over.

Jed's anger at Wonderland's hypocrisy may be understandable, since he clearly isn't one of the "haves" of Tomlin's society, but one has to wonder: if Jed was standing on the other side of the garbage collection facility, enjoying popcorn and candyfloss with the rest of the punters, instead of sorting through garbage by hand now that his team has been "downsized," would he really be so willing to blow the whole thing to kingdom come?

"Operation Wonderland" is on at the Traverse Theatre until Saturday, 3rd April, 2004.


Reviewer: Rachel Lynn Brody

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