When Two Tribes Go To War
Deciding that I’d resisted this for long enough, I thought I’d wander down and try to catch ‘Matilda’ at a matinee (if you’re by yourself you can usually still find a full-price seat even at a sell-out show like this). The Cambridge Theatre was crawling with middle-class children. They were hanging off their booster seats, oozing out of the walls, underfoot and all around. I broke out into a cold sweat even before the damned show started. At £70 a seat there had to be some pretty flush parents around, too.
I’m not the world’s biggest Roald Dahl fan – I always found his work technically superb but oddly unmemorable, and as this is a show labelled ‘Suitable for ages 6+’ I had a horrible feeling it might only be aimed young. However, like the toughened-up, psychologically-underpinned ‘Mary Poppins’ show that caught everyone by surprise (and proved too dark for some – it was subsequently rewritten after the West End) this is an astonishing achievement that feels more like an edgy fringe production than usual West End fare.
Writer Dennis Kelly and composer/lyricist Tim Minchin have made some brave choices in an anarchic, nasty and very clever attack on dumbing down. It takes a lot of nerve to fill a stage with kids and then require them to deliver verbal pyrotechnics while they’re throwing themselves off gym horses. It feels that at any second things might get out of control and collapse, but that’s part of the fun.
As Matilda, born to venally stupid parents, is packed off to face the wrath of Bertie Carvel’s genuinely surreal hammer-throwing headmistress Miss Trunchbull, a dose of free spirit breaks loose (not to mention a touch of ‘Carrie’-style telekinetics). The simple staging consists mostly of alphabet blocks, and allows for imaginative leaps of faith.
As the fidgety nippers in front of me were gradually suckered into this anarchists’ manifesto and fell silent, spellbound, it was apparent the same thing was happening to the adults. There were collectively held breaths and subtly wiped eyes. In an interview, Kelly pointed out that Dahl had created two tribes, adults and children, and that some adults are honorary members of the child tribe. Quasi-Nazi headmistress and pupil lock horns over the right to break the rules, but it’s not the usual ‘Let’s all be free’ message that usually gets peddled out, because Matilda has clearly had to learn the rules before she can break them, and that requires hard work.
This is a subject close to my heart and the reason I wrote ‘Calabash’, still the personal favourite of all my books. Tim Minchin, no stranger to hard work in the past, has punched straight to the top with a dazzling score that incorporates some of the smartest wordplay I’ve heard on stage outside of Sondheim. There are a couple of moments that catch the throat, one being when children and adults soar above the audience on garden swings in ‘When I Grow Up’.
Afterwards I thought about the content and realised we had seen a transgendered, deranged hunchback murderess, the Russian mafia, fairytales, child cruelty, samba dancers and a superbly spiteful dig at TV culture rolled into a lesson on the importance of reading. Not bad for a Wednesday afternoon. Carvel’s cross-dressed performance is one of those things you’ll always treasure, like Mark Rylance in ‘Jerusalem’. Twitching, throbbing, neighing and strutting about with arms that appear to have shrunk into his deformed body, he gives a masterclass in abnormal behaviour.
I imagine ‘Matilda’ will still be running in 20 years’ time, more deservedly so than most of the long-running tat in the West End. Perhaps Miss Trunchbull could dynamite the shameful ‘We Will Rock You’ or ‘Phantom’, which is now like an Angus Steak House, little more than an embarrassment to everyone except bemused Chinese tourists.