Cambridge Theatre, 21 December 2011 – booking until Oct 2012
There is a long and often inglorious history of converting much-loved books into musical theatre. The temptation for doing so is obvious; flying in the face of overwhelming critical disdain, Les Miserables has provided a template for financial success. It has a mantelpiece of audience-choice awards, a global army of devoted fans and by January 2010 it was celebrating notching up 10,000 performances in the West End. In short the tills have not stopped ringing since the original Cameron Mackintosh-Trevor Nunn production in 1985.
A salient and oft-overlooked fact by those who sneer at Les Mis is that this success has seen the RSC (producers of Matilda) through the brutal conditions suffered in the 1980’s under a prime minister who held Andrew Lloyd Webber as a shining example of artistic achievement. No doubt Jean Valjean would not have countenanced betraying his principles in such a manner but clearly the financially imperatives of publically subsidised theatre led to Trevor Nunn’s rather more pragmatic vision.
With Les Miserables finally beginning to flag, transferring to the noticeably smaller Queens Theatre and with the famous Barricade seemingly less than impressive in its new surrounds, the RSC have sought to launch a new cash cow in the form of a major new musical adapted from a well-known book. Clearly it was though that the National’s approach of writing a verbatim musical, ‘London Road’, about the serial killing of five prostitutes in Ipswich was not the way to long-term commercial success.
However the road to the West End is paved with the carcasses of plots from their literary womb untimely ripped. Topping this sad and unfestive tree must be Gone With The Wind, critically reviled and starring a woefully miscast Darius (remember him?), but there is also Carrie The Musical, a concept so clearly problematic that the mind boggles at the commissioning process. For most of 2012 we have been entertained by the sorry stories emanating across the Atlantic surrounding the sheer ineptitude of Spiderman: The Musical; a show that could only have come from trouble-shooting consultants who identified a previously unidentified cross over between comic book fans and musical theatre goers.
The RSC must have approached Roald Dahl’s much-loved children’s book with some trepidation. He is an author who, like Enid Blyton, never seems to go out of fashion despite offering a nostalgic view of England that those reading the books will find hard to reconcile with a world of X-Boxes and Club Penguin. With a central premise built on libraries, it even smacks of radicalism that seems very at odds with Dahl’s natural conservatism.
And for a special sneak preview…