Paul Kaye and Josie Walker as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood. Photo by Manuel Harlan
The image of four little girls holding gold statuettes as big as their heads made theater-goers smile on April 17, as Matilda the Musical swept the Oliviers (Britain's version of the Tonys). London musicals are loving children these days—with both the long-running shows Billy Elliot and Les Miserables starring underage actors—and now Matilda makes it necessary for the Wyndham's Theatre to offer booster seats with every ticket.
But it's adults who also should enjoy this bright, pop adaptation of Roald Dahl's YA classic. The April 13 performance (before the awards) featured exquisite Sophia Kiely in the lead, and a plainer, lesswinsome little star is unimaginable. From her first, pathetic, sung lines "My father says I'm an idiot; my mummy says I'm a lousy little worm,” sung in contrast to the boasts of other children (“My mother says I’m a miracle!”) it’s clear that someone has kept costumers and makeup artists from making her appear glamorous in even the unkempt, waifish style of Cosette in Les Mis.
Indeed, all the children in Matilda evidence a refreshing lack of cuteness that serves Roald Dahl's story well, though their hollow-eyed appearance might prove anathema to Broadway audiences. The characters are clearly role models for the squillions of well-dressed, awestruck kids in the audience, two of whom chatter with extreme animation across me before the curtain rises: “Did you get any badges or anything? I got a badge that says, ‘Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.’”
Appealing as it might be to tweens, the “naughtiness” espoused by Matilda, done to serve justice and teach bad people lessons, is far from the delinquency evidenced by Michael (Peter Howe), Matilda’s teenage layabout brother. He, the antihero, provides a harrowing example of what happens to kids who don’t think for themselves: viz., an Edward Gorey crack baby grown up on refined carbs and testosterone. His slack facial expressions and adenoidal echolalia present a disturbing vision of teenage mental illness, reminding us that despite the splendid song and dance routines, this isn’t Disney: It’s the Royal Shakespeare Company—and they can really act.
The musical also won an Olivier for Best Set Design for a fascinating structure that shifts from house to library to school gates to bathroom. Made of chalkboards and wooden blocks featuring hundreds of multicoloured letters, the backdrop compels anyone who can read to do so, forming beguiling and relevant words (like ‘escape,’ ‘spangly,’ ‘beast,’ malice’) out of the apparently random array of letters. This background magic relates to the fact that besides having occasional mental superpowers, Matilda loves to read, making her of course sympathetic to most theatregoers and readers of Roald Dahl’s books. One of the first big laughs is Matilda’s lament that, “My dad says I should watch more TV.”
With such parental-heart-warming inversions, the musical initially turns traditional children’s stories on their head: Matilda rebels by reading stacks of the classics, and she runs away from home only as far as the public library, where she tells stories to anyone who will listen, mainly librarian Mrs. Phelps (performed by the charmingly accented Melanie LaBarrie). Matilda’s “naughtiness” comprises pranks against her feckless, loud, trash-talking parents, whose crass manners, vulgar jokes, and ugly costuming make them, rather than Matilda, seem immature.
Further, the children’s collective aspirations aren’t to destroy evil-doing adults, only to live free of them. The barn-raiser song “When I Grow Up,” sung as the children little and big swoop about the stage on swings, offers such socially acceptable objectives as “I’ll eat sweets every day…I will go to sleep late every night.” Yes, the “revolting maggots” do revolt, and the rotten Head is figuratively decapitated, but the rebellion is a bloodless coup executed with good manners. After all, Dahl is a children’s writer, not a revolutionary.
Although act one is fairly plotless, by the interval the conflict is established: it’s Matilda, her teacher, and a librarian vs. materialistic grown-ups, the headmistress, and stupid authority in general. The pace picks up in the second half (audience advisory: pay attention to the serial story Matilda makes up), and ultimately a series of fortunate events dramatize the mainstream morals: books and familial love are good, TV and contrived sexiness are bad, doing what’s right pays off, and the more words you know, the better.
There’s an intra-theater nod to Wicked in the first scene (one of the children initially appears bright green), but these children are about as wicked as Munchkins. Matilda wants to right wrongs, especially those done to students by the wonderfully terrible headmistress, Trunchbull, a top-heavy gender-queer former hammer-thrower, played to Dahlesque perfection by Bertie Carvel. His Olivier-winning panto/drag was so “real” I thought it was done by an actress, but it’s a man playing a ludicrously butch woman, so muscle- and hide-bound she can barely fling small children into the audience. Her sadistically forcing one boy to eat an entire chocolate cake evokes upset hilarity from the audience, and the other pupils’ revolt – in the form of deliberately incurring punishment en masse – is as poignant and sympathetic as Huck Finn protecting Jim.
Satisfyingly, the story emphasizes the importance of content over form, and intelligence over appearance, while it cheerfully snubs stereotypical gender roles or predictable storylines (n.b., there’s no love interest for the nubile Miss Honey). Matilda offers, via uplifting song and acrobatic dance, a decent alternative to white-bread lifestyles, and it champions self-definition, especially for people who fight back against oppression.
It may have started life as a kids’ story, but in this incarnation Matilda has more than a lick of adult sophistication. English TV star Geoffrey Palmer was in the audience during the Apri l13 performance, looking well pleased, and a few days later, the Oliviers gave the ultimate professional accolades. Anyone going to the show—accompanied by children or not—can enjoy a pre-theater drink at the very grown-up Dial Bar in the Radisson Edwardian directly across from Wyndham’s, or nip out at the interval for a nip at the wedge-shaped Crown pub, next door to the theater. Altogether, Matilda the Musical is educational, entertaining, and alternative enough to engage this gay grown-up, and besides, I can’t get the songs out of my head.