Theatre is on a roll with Roald at the moment. The RSC's Matilda has just received a gong at the Critics' Circle Awards, the presenter fulsomely declaring it to be the best new British musical that he had witnessed in 27 years of reviewing. But this new stage version of some of the author's aimed-at-adults Tales of the Unexpected at the Lyric Hammersmith strikes me as more than a couple of shudders short of the full Dahl. I have only two problems with it. I hate the stories themselves and I find the theatrical adaptation of them largely spurious in the chills department.
There's a yarn here about a joyless, control-freak intellectual who winds up – to his oppressed spouse's ultimate deep satisfaction – reduced to a brain and an eye in a bowl, powerless to do anything but cerebrate and observe liberated wifey do everything that he had repressed and abominated in her. Clever, huh? Mmm, yes, but you also feel that these stories, in their glee at ingenious revenge and familial failure, might as well have been written by that disembodied freak. Tricked with melodramatic trapping (huge wayward clock, dry-ice-infected rail network) this is a succession of heartless jeux d'esprit slickly served up by Jeremy Dyson (of The League of Gentlemen) and director Polly Findlay in a manner abjectly intent on duplicating the Lyric's West End success with Ghost Stories.
The adaptors present the proceedings with an ingeniously involuted double-framework of commuter storytelling and a suffocating Fifties atmosphere of strangulated gentility. But who gives a basic damn about landladies with long-term taxidermic ambitions or gambling Jamaican expats or public-school fags wreaking misdirected revenge on their bullies? The eventual pay-offs are weak; the narrative components are as mean as they are, in translatable terms, meaningless. Hello Dahl-y and goodbye.
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