Sadist Torments Matilda, ‘Love Story,’ ‘Tannhauser’: Premieres

The ensemble of "Matilda" in the musical at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. The music and lyrics are by Tim Minchin, book by Dennis Kelly and directed by Matthew Warchus. Source RSC via Bloomberg

Dec. 14 (Bloomberg) -- The lively musical “Matilda,” based on a novel by Roald Dahl, is playing at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Artistic director Michael Boyd has said he hopes it’ll transfer to London. With a bit of tweaking, it’s a cert.

“Matilda” tells the story of an imaginative and clever little girl (I saw the excellent Kerry Ingram in the title role, one of three Matildas) who outwits all the horrible adults around her. We’re talking “horrible” with a capital H.

Matilda’s hilariously vulgar parents despise her self-possession and bookishness. To get her out of the way, they send her to Crunchem Hall school.

There the sadistic headmistress, Agatha Trunchbull, is a former Olympic hammer-thrower who likes to pick up girls by their pigtails, spin them around, and pitch them into the auditorium. She makes your average villain look like a fluffy bunny-wunny, and in Bertie Carvel’s drag performance, her wonderfully evil ways are a joy.

Tough Matilda

Less joyful is the episodic nature of the storytelling. A few of the episodes could profitably be cut, and a stronger narrative through-line established. It’s something of a flaw, too, that the heroine doesn’t go on much of a dramatic journey: She’s so self-possessed right from the start that her triumph is never in doubt.

It’s still a lot of fun. The energy never lets up in Matthew Warchus’s slick and amusing production, and the ensemble of children is handled with a glorious lack of sentiment. If Tim Minchin’s songs and lyrics are not memory-burrowers, they provide a good deal of pleasure and amusement. Rating: ***.

‘Love Story’

Good songs aren’t everything. Howard Goodall’s musical version of Erich Segal’s “Love Story” at the Duchess Theatre has a few, and they don’t help.

It’s the fault of the plot, which (never having read the book or seen the movie) I didn’t know. Boy meets girl in the 1960s. Love blossoms. Girl dies.

Conflict? Tension? Drama? Nope.

Schmaltzy deathbed speeches? By the bucket.

If that doesn’t worry you, then you might like the 100-minute show. The music’s pretty, the staging efficient and the performances from Emma Williams and Michael Xavier as the oh-so-in-love couple charming. Rating: **.

‘Tannhauser’

The Royal Opera House’s new “Tannhauser” by Tim Albery starts promisingly.

The Venusberg, where Tannhauser is living a life of whoopee with the goddess of love, is a startling replica of Covent Garden’s own proscenium arch. It seems that the hero’s life of endless leg-over is just an illusion, a dream.

When he decides to leave Venus and return to the world, he finds it a war-ravaged place.

In Act 2, the proscenium arch is rubble. Tannhauser’s former friends and colleagues carry guns, and dress in modern Balkan-style combat gear. The women cover their heads.

They don’t like it when Tannhauser extols the pleasures of the Venusberg, and send him into a big black box with a withered symbolic tree in the middle. This is where the virginal Elisabeth prays for his soul and redeems him by her death, as Wagnerian heroines are wont to do.

Hey, what happened to the theater metaphor?

Intellectually rigorous, it’s not. Neither is it a pacy affair. Sometimes the poor chorus members stand still for eons at a stretch.

Big Tenor

Still, there’s a memorable atmosphere of anguish and gloom, and some truly great singing.

Semyon Bychkov’s conducting is monumental. His tempi are fast, yet he never sacrifices the orchestral inner glow necessary.

Supersized heldentenor Johan Botha (Tannhauser) likes to stand still a lot while singing with a marvelously heroic voice. Michaela Schuster (Venus) and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Elisabeth) are both great as the vamp and virgin, respectively, in the hero’s life. Baritone Christian Gerhaher (as Elisabeth’s luckless admirer Wolfram) could melt a cast-iron chastity belt with the luxurious beauty of his sound.

Production OK, singing terrific. (Through Jan. 2, 2011). Rating: ***.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Very Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.