Matilda the Musical and memories of childhood

Matilda the Musical, Lyric Theatre, Sydney

I’M sorry. I make no apology for the following revelation because it’s relevant. I was the intellectual of the Kindergarten class at St Columba’s, Ballarat North. I could read before I started school and thus, when the teacher – not a sympathetic one, I fear – took us endlessly through a huge alphabet chart on the wall (A apple, B bat, C cat and so on) I thought I would go mad. I can still see it, and shall we say this was some small time ago, when we all sat in rows at wooden desks with inkwells. I also had a lazy eye and zero coordination. Being chosen last for rounders was a given, and in the foot races we were forced to take part in I always came last. Unless Helen Sherry was in my group, and then I came second last.

What balm, then, Matilda the Musical is for little girls and boys like me, and for me too these many decades later. Those memories are forever green, unfortunately.

Bella Thomas as Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

Bella Thomas as Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

Tim Minchin so gets that. Take one of his early songs in Matilda, School Song, in which the alphabet is trawled to build up to a climactic: “Just you wait for Phys Ed”. That not only gets Z done and dusted in sensational style, it speaks to the monumental terror so many of us felt when forced to get our heads out of a book and our puny bodies on to the sports field. The humiliation was intense and complete.

The staging of this song piles Pelion on Ossa (classical reference!) by having the senior students played by adults. Remember how big the big kids looked when you started school. It’s that, magnified. All this happens shortly after a rousing opening number in which Matilda’s youngsters boast of just how marvelous their parents’ think they are. They are in for a shock.

Minchin, Dennis Kelly (book), Peter Darling (choreography), Rob Howell (sets and costumes) and Matthew Warchus (original direction of this Royal Shakespeare Company production) create wonders from Roald Dahl’s story. Matilda is exhilarating fun while being very, very brainy. Books, language, courage, resilience and imagination are celebrated as weapons of rebellion against the philistine and the mean-spirited. There’s an inescapable darkness in Matilda but a beautiful spirit of optimism prevails. It’s magical and it has something to say to everyone.

Molly Barwich as Matilda with Elise McCann as Miss Honey. Photo: James Morgan

Molly Barwick as Matilda with Elise McCann as Miss Honey. Photo: James Morgan

Given the subject matter, Matilda the Musical has to rest its case on small shoulders. There are superb performances from James Millar (silken-voiced, despotic headmistress Miss Trunchbull), Elise McCann (divine Miss Honey) and Marika Aubrey and Daniel Frederiksen (Matilda’s ghastly parents, the Wormwoods). The kids are all a delight too, but Matilda has to be the shining centre.

There are four girls playing our heroine in rotation, obviously not five-year-olds but several years short of teenagehood. I have seen two of them, Molly Barwick (10) at a preview and Bella Thomas (11) at last week’s opening night. They were very different and both enchanting. I very much want to see Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin, obviously out of professional interest, and also because it means I get to see Matilda again.

2013: a retrospective

Here’s my take on the year’s high points. As many have noted before me, “best” is a useless word when applied to the cornucopia available in the arts. Here are the people and productions that most inspired me.

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia's Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia’s Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

“A SHORT show is a good show,” we all carol (me and my fellow critics) as we enter the auditorium for yet another 70- to 90-minute piece of theatre, but put a 10-hour marathon before us and we can’t get enough. So I have lists for big things, small things, individuals, a few words on musical theatre and a couple of miscellaneous thoughts.

It was a strong year, particularly in Sydney theatre, so it was hard to keep the lists tight. Please don’t take anything I say here as an indication of who has taken out honours in the Sydney Theatre Awards, of which I am but one judge on a panel of nine. Argument was fierce and the passions diverse, let me tell you! But here goes from me, in alphabetical order …

Big:

Angels in America, Parts One and Two, Belvoir, Sydney: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is the best play to have been written in English in my lifetime. Belvoir’s production was very fine.

Cinderella, The Australian Ballet, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. The amazing Surrealist-inspired set looked waaaay better in Melbourne than in Sydney, but this version of the beloved fairytale to the bittersweet music of Prokofiev as choreographed by the world’s leading classicist is a keeper. (Also wonderful to see Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream with the Bolshoi in Brisbane mid-year – amazing how that company managed to block out the hideous backstage dramas that still dog it.)

Life and Times, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Melbourne Festival: The ums, ahs and pauses of an ordinary life rendered first as a dippy musical, then as a drawing-room mystery. You had to be there (for 10 hours indeed). Sublime, transcendent.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam: Scintillating Stravinsky Firebird suite and glorious Tchaikovsky fifth symphony. Magic.

The Ring, Opera Australia, Melbourne: not a flawless production, but one that felt right for this place and this time. Director Neil Armfield’s strength is finding the humanity in situations where it may seem to be missing in action and he did it here. Under last-minute mini-maestro Pietari Inkinen (only 33!!) the Melbourne Ring Orchestra put in a blinder. Bravi.

The Threepenny Opera, Berliner Ensemble, Perth International Arts Festival: Not a huge company, but a Robert Wilson production simply cannot be put into any category other than outsized. Stupendously performed, gorgeous to the eye, a knockout band in the pit, witty, sardonic … you get the idea.

Small:

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney: A devastating production (Sam Strong directed) of John Romeril’s devastating play. I saw the last scene with tears pouring down my face. A rare occurrence.

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera: Apparently the most popular opera of 1649. Worked pretty damn well in 2013.

Independent theatre x 3: I have to mention this trio of splendid plays and productions thereof. I was thrilled to have been able to see Jez Butterworth’s brilliant Jerusalem in Sydney, and done so persuasively by the New Theatre. Workhorse Theatre Company’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat was hold-on-to-your-hats exhilarating, and is getting a re-run in 2014 at the new Eternity Playhouse. Hooray. And in Siren Theatre Company’s Penelope (by Enda Walsh), all sorts of trouble arises when Odysseus’s arrival back home is imminent. As with Workhorse, Siren did a superb job in the tiny confines of the theatre at TAP Gallery.

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera: This young, tiny outfit did Benjamin Britten proud in his centenary year. Really memorable music-making.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The Rite of Spring, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Brisbane and Melbourne festivals: In the Rite of Spring centenary year, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s setting in a harsh, cold village was, not surprisingly, dark and threatening. His ending, however, stressed the renewal and healing that is to come. The score was played in Stravinsky’s four-hand version (on one piano); earlier in the year, in Sacre – The Rite of Spring (Raimund Hoghe for the Sydney Festival), we heard the score also played ravishingly by four hands, but on two pianos. Sacre was a difficult dance work for many; I admired it greatly.

School Dance, Windmill Theatre (seen at Sydney Theatre Company in association with the Sydney Festival): loved, loved, loved.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Super Discount, Back to Back Theatre: Deeply provocative on all sorts of levels. Can’t wait for Ganesh versus the Third Reich to come to Sydney – finally – next year.

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company: Luke Mullins, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving were an immaculate quartet of players in one of the year’s most heart-piercing productions.

Individuals (performers):

David Hallberg (American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal): Luminous in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella for The Australian Ballet in Sydney. Prince of princes.

Peter Kowitz: Les in The Floating World (see above).

Ewen Leslie: A huge year on the Sydney stage as a desolate Brick in Belvoir’s contentious Australian-accented Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Player in Sydney Theatre Company’s terrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and most powerfully – and impressively – as Hamlet for Belvoir, stepping in at short notice when original Dane Toby Schmitz was called overseas for filming duty. A rare change to compare and contrast in one of the roles by which men are judged. Closely.

Catherine McClements, Phedre, Bell Shakespeare: A scarifying performance in a production that was, in my opinion, sorely underrated. Not by me though.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Amber McMahon: Harper in Angels in America for Belvoir, various roles in School Dance for Windmill, special in everything.

Sharon Millerchip, Bombshells, Ensemble Theatre: Dazzling in Joanna Murray-Smith’s ode to the many faces of womanhood.

Tim Minchin: Lucky old us to see him not once but twice on stage, as a show-stealing Judas in the arena Jesus Christ Superstar and Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Dead. Or is that Guildenstern? Don’t ask Claudius or Gertrude to help you out.

Luke Mullins: Prior Walter in Angels in America, the quiet centre of Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired, Lucky in Waiting for Godot. Fantastic in all of them. What a year!

Bojana Novakovic, The Blind Date Project, Sydney Festival: I adored this little improvised show. Wish I could have seen Novakovic with many more of her blind dates.

Myriam Ould-Braham, Paris Opera Ballet: Made her debut as Giselle in Sydney in February, making us here the envy of many a Paris balletomane. She was divine, as was fellow etoile Dorothee Gilbert. Both were partnered by the supremely elegant Mathieu Ganio. A joy to see the company here again.

Steve Rodgers: Rodgers has long been one of my favourite actors – so simpatico, even when taking on a difficult subject matter in Griffin’s Dreams in White. And especially in Gideon Obarzanek’s Dance Better at Parties for STC.

Individuals (behind the scenes):

Rafael Bonachela, artistic director, Sydney Dance Company: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. Bonachela sees everything and is bringing lots of strong artistic collaborations back for his astoundingly beautiful dancers.

Li Cunxin, artistic director, Queensland Ballet: He’s taken the company back to the classics and people have voted with their wallets. All shows have been sold out and all shows have been extended. I think Brisbane likes him.

Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia: Got the Ring up. Respect.

Musical theatre:

It was an exceptionally patchy year for musical theatre in Sydney, although Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was really, really entertaining and super-well cast, and the arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar was a blast. The new consortium of music-theatre people, Independent Music Theatre, holds out promise for better things next year, and the feisty little Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre continues to impress.

Miscellaneous:

Best new (only new) theatre in Sydney in 2013: Best is a word that certainly applies here. All hail Sydney City Council for getting the Eternity Playhouse happening. It is a truly beautiful 200-seat house, and an adornment to the city.

Best seat in the house: A11 at Belvoir. The lucky incumbent – male or female, it didn’t matter- got a kiss from Toby Schmitz or Ewen Leslie during Hamlet. Alas I was not one of them.

Clearest indication that critics don’t matter much: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which got the kind of reviews cast members’ mothers would write, did poor business in Sydney. Those of us who wrote about it adored it. We had very little effect.

Doesn’t stop us though.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Sydney Theatre, August 10

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. On!

Pozzo, Waiting for Godot, Act II

I HAD forgotten to what degree Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pays homage to Waiting for Godot while going backstage at Hamlet, as ‘twere. As the court of Elsinore goes through its well known paces, shown to us only in flickers and fragments, the two courtiers are left to fretfully consider just why they have been tapped to glean what afflicts Hamlet. Like Vladimir and Estragon they puzzle and ruminate, waiting for something to happen, never entirely sure of their shifting ground. That’s ground in the metaphorical sense; in the physical sense they seem rooted to the spot, unable to escape from a claustrophobic set of arches and tunnels that, disconcertingly, look fake but through which others – but not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – come and go. The two are like actors who have lost the plot, babbling away, unable to find the right spot in the script and move on.

Ewen Leslie, centre, and the players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Ewen Leslie, centre, and the players in Sydney Theatre Company’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

With Stoppard’s intellect and wit on speed dial – the man was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937; naturally he sees the mordantly funny side of existential angst – one has to be in alert form to keep up on both sides of the spotlights. Simon Phillips directs with unflagging vigour and a keen sense of the absurd, rightly, I think, valuing energy and momentum over textual clarity at times. Well, there are so many words that if you miss one or two, there’ll be another bunch along in a moment. (There isn’t a lot missed, and to be honest a couple of the more abstruse jokes are never going to score big with an audience so best to get ‘em out and move right along.)

Gabriela Tylesova’s design is a marvel of cunning, and not only because it uses the Sydney Theatre stage in a way we haven’t seen before. It is genuinely disconcerting as well as being playful and mysterious. What’s that funnel doing hanging above the stage? At the beginning we see it extrude some bare branches – shades of Godot! – and later there’s a kind of twisty, open-work ladder that trails off into the wings. All very sci-fi and theatrical. Tylesova has had great fun with the costumes too, memorably kitting out Heather Mitchell’s Gertrude as a mad version of Elizabeth I. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern revels outrageously in its play-ness (more Godot!), giving a particularly juicy role to the impresario whose dogged band of mixed nuts is hired to perform for Gertrude and Claudius.  “We are actors. We are the opposite of people,” says the Player, impersonated with lofty self-regard by Ewen Leslie, employing the rich, thespian tones of a man exceptionally impressed with the timbre of his voice.

Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

When it comes to words, however, Toby Schmitz’s febrile Guildenstern is your man, pouring out his thoughts and fears amusingly, obsessively, manically. (Even his hair is jumpy: Schmitz’s usually straight locks are hidden under a riot of curls.) Of course he has every reason to suspect all is not right. Tim Minchin’s Rosencrantz, on the other hand, is not quite so aware of the abyss yawning before them – why toenails don’t grow as swiftly as fingernails is more his speed – but intimations of mortality are everywhere. Schmitz and Minchin, Minchin and Schmitz. They are tremendously vivid and engaging and touching as well as being highly individual. Claudius and Gertrude keep mixing them up, to the point where the lads themselves become a tiny bit unsure about who they are. But that’s because no one else is really real. They are all opening their mouths, saying stuff and playing a part.

I’d like to think it’s fate that provides Sydney with the chance to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Sydney Theatre Company), Hamlet (Belvoir) and Waiting for Godot (STC) in the same year. Indeed, in the same half of the year.  I don’t suppose STC’s Andrew Upton and Belvoir’s Ralph Myers cooked this up together, at least I hope they didn’t. Less fun that way.

Toby Schmitz, Tim Minchin and George Kemp. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz, Tim Minchin and George Kemp. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

That two of the three plays feature Schmitz is a bonus. What a shame the scheduling of Hamlet makes it impossible for Schmitz – he is the Dane – to play Lucky to Philip Quast’s Pozzo while Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh play Vladimir and Estragon. Or is it Estragon and Vladimir?

What brilliant casts we’re seeing in Sydney this year.

Postscript: The supporting cast for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a knockout, and includes, along with Heather Mitchell, John Gaden as Polonius and Christopher Stollery as Claudius. And a special nod to George Kemp as the player Alfred, put upon in more ways than one.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continues at the Sydney Theatre until September 14.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Perth Arena, May 31

JESUS Christ Superstar was the first big musical I saw as an adult so it’s always had a special place in my heart and memory. It was 1972, Sydney’s Capitol Theatre had been smothered in what was then an extremely cool colour, Mission Brown, and Jon English was very, very hot. Australia had got in early with Superstar. It opened on Broadway in October 1971 and in Sydney in May 1972, a few months before London. After their huge success in Sydney, Jim Sharman was tapped to direct the London production and Brian Thomson to design it.  How good was that?

After failing to secure good seats for one of the Sydney performances of this latest incarnation of Superstar I hit upon a solution. I review musical theatre for The Australian. Why not offer to take myself to Perth to cover the show? Bingo.

A scene from Jesus Christ Superstar

A scene from Jesus Christ Superstar

Thus I found myself in Perth Arena, the city’s spanking new entertainment venue, along with 12,500 others, give or take. A bonus was the extra frisson due to the presence of local boy made very, very good, Tim Minchin, playing the old Jon English role of Judas. Also from the London cast was Melanie C, former Spice Girl and a formidable Mary Magdalene. Jon Stevens, a former Judas of note – he was in that record-breaking run of 84 arena performances in 1992 – got a huge reception on entering and proved to be brilliantly cast as Pontius Pilate. As he started singing a man behind me said approvingly: “Now there’s a real voice.”

In the UK radio presenter Chris Moyles appeared as Herod and apparently wasn’t any great shakes as a singer. But there’s an element of novelty in the role so it didn’t seem too bizarre to bring in popular game show host Andrew O’Keefe for the Australian tour. As it happens the man can hold a tune and killed it as the King. Who knew?

To top things off, even this concentration of celebrity wattage couldn’t dim the true star of the evening – Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1972 rock oratorio. Given an astute, persuasive setting that evokes Occupy London specifically and contemporary protest movements more generally, Jesus Chris Superstar is as exciting now as it was when breaking ground for musical theatre 40 years ago.

Having originated in London last year the production – directed by Laurence Connor with designs by Mark Fisher (set) and Patrick Woodroffe (lights) – is tight as a drum. The stage is dominated by a staircase with the 10 band members on tiers to left and right. A huge screen at the back projects slogans and images of protest and close-ups of the performers and cleverly seems as much a theatrical response to our media-saturated world as a necessity for those in the cheap seats.

Herod’s appeal to the crowd to decide whether Jesus is the real deal or not is wittily expressed as being put to an audience vote via text message; Judas’s death and Jesus’s crucifixion are powerfully staged, and the 39 lashes meted out to Jesus are depicted unsparingly. Only the Victoria’s Secret-style angels who appear near the end strike a slightly tacky note. Otherwise the production is exceptionally well judged and it’s tremendously well sung.

Tim Minchin as Judas

Tim Minchin as Judas

Minchin is the revelation and the linchpin. In superb voice, he kickstarts the show with an anguished Heaven on Their Minds and establishes Judas as a serious, conflicted man. So, where is Jesus in all this? Superstar gives Judas a chance to put his side of the story and the musical is weighted in his favour. Even so, Ben Forster’s Jesus is at a further disadvantage when put up against the all-conquering Minchin. Forster can sing, no doubt about it, but I wish I had found him more charismatic. He seemed self-pitying and a bit of a chancer rather than full of messianic zeal, although to be fair I must add that at this first performance in the Australian tour mine was clearly a minority opinion.

Some of Rice’s lyrics haven’t stood the test of time but others still really cut the mustard. “When we retire we can write the gospels …” croon the woozy apostles at the Last Supper. What a great line. Meanwhile, the stream of great songs pours forth – hard rock, soft rock, ballads, anthems, a touch of music hall. It’s an eclectic mix that miraculously hangs together, delivered by a great band at a sound level that sweeps the audience up but is at the same time considerate. Bravo to the engineers.

Postscript: Superstar is a nimble show. O’Keefe got in a quick and nifty Eddie McGuire gag at the Perth opening. Hosanna, Hey-sanna! I do hope today’s short attention spans and thirst for new scandals don’t result it its being dropped along the way.

Remaining performances are in Sydney, June 7-9; Brisbane, June 11-12 and 18; Melbourne, June 14-16.

This is an extended version of a review that appeared in The Australian on June 3.