Monday, May 27, 2013

'Matilda' at the Cambridge Theatre, 25th May 2013

Matilda is practically perfect in every way. It's been a long time since I saw the 1996 film, and longer since I read Roald Dahl's book.  It only took about 10 minutes before the memories came flooding back. What I realised this time is that Matilda is basically Stephen King's Carrie for kids. Both stories feature precocious schoolgirls being ground down by authority figures, treated monstrously by their parents and repeatedly publicly humiliated. This intense pressure awakens latent psychic superpowers and the girls go on a roaring rampage of revenge against those that have wronged them.

The image of unleashed femininity telekinetically lashing out against oppression is fertile dramatic ground, both Matilda and Carrie being simultaneously empowering and kind of terrifying.  In the end Dahl and King reach quite different conclusions; Carrie White's psychic powers transform her into an id-fuelled blindly raging, self destructive monster, while Matilda Wormwood uses hers for the pursuit of justice, setting right wrongs using precise and careful control.

This idea that control, focus and thoughtfulness is the best way to improve your life runs right through Matilda like the words in a stick of rock. After all, her telekinetic powers only manifest when her pursuit of knowledge becomes stifled, after she's victimised at school and when her library books turn up by her domineering, idiotic father.  One of the most important things about Matilda's powers is that they don't appear to be a quirk of birth.  Throughout the show characters talk about Matilda having so many brains that they'll escape from her head, Dahl is suggesting that the process of being stifled and repressed, or not being able to communicate your thoughts to receptive ears is like blowing too much air into a balloon.  These abilities are a metaphor for the power of knowledge and her control of language. This is the thematic architecture of the production, and it brilliantly informs just about everything  on stage.

The first thing you see when you take your seats is a gigantic cloud of blocks, a proscenium arch frozen in mid-explosion.  Some of the blocks have letters drawn on them and as you follow the paths of letters across the stage you can decipher words like 'escape' and 'freedom' hidden in what initially seems like a random jumble.  This continues in the library sequences; when two columns of books slot together in the centre of the stage they form a crossword that reads 'shush' and 'silent'.  Later in Miss Honey's house the floor reads "Home Sweet Home" on the floor.  This tactic not only forces the audience to put a bit of mental legwork in to understand the staging, but also simulates the process of learning to read.  It's arguable that any adaptation of Matilda is inherently hypocritical, the story makes such a strong case for settling in with a book that not experiencing the story by reading the original text feels off.  But the 'reading' of the stage design here somewhat alleviates any whiff of hypocrisy, as does the construction of the musical numbers.

For example, in the 'School Song' number, we see children climbing up a wall on alphabet blocks.  Each letter is cleverly worked into the song's lyrics thusly,

"So you think you're A-ble, 
To survive this mess by B-ing, 
A prince or a princess, you will soon C, 
There's no escaping trage-D."

As the children sing each letter, the corresponding block is slotted into the wall, giving them a new handhold, enabling them to climb ever higher.  The concept of children reaching new heights through language is thus realised on stage as a dynamic musical and physical process.  This process is present throughout the show in the rapidly paced wordplay of Tim Minchin's lyrics.  In every song there are nested double-meanings, innuendos and jokes, prodding us to engage in the process of decoding the lyrics "on the fly" as we listen to the cast machine-gun them out at us.  Being nimble in decoding language like this is hugely important, if you just let the songs wash over you without paying close attention you'll miss some of the best jokes in the show.  Appropriately for Matilda, the smarter you are and the more you focus on the show, the more you'll get out of it.

The thematic importance of language and careful consideration of wordplay wraps up neatly over the climax.  Matilda terrifies the sinister Miss Trunchbull by exposing her past crimes  in a message in a message that seems to come from beyond the grave.  She levitates a piece of chalk with her mind and writes on the blackboard.  This process is a representation of direct translation of thought to language without an intermediary, and Trunchbull's reaction is a stunning example of the impact the right sentence in the right place can have.  Soon after this Matilda once again saves the day with her application of language.  Her abominable parents are being menaced by Russian gangsters and she begins unexpectedly conversing with them in Russian - which she learnt so she could read Dostoyevsky in the original language.  This feels as magical as her telekinesis, yet learning Russian is within all of our grasps if we just applied ourselves hard enough.  This purity of message in the staging, the music and the narrative of message elevates Matilda over pretty much every other stage musical I've seen.  

But this noble message would fall flat if it weren't for the brilliant cast.  Both child and adult performers alike are outstanding.  It's a brave decision to make a young child the lynchpin of an enormously elaborate West End production, but to adapt Matilda there's no way around it.  If you cast the part of Matilda as a teenager or adult 'playing' a child you'd drain much of the power from the narrative.  I'm not sure who played Matilda in the show I saw on the 25th as the part is revolved between three different girls; Elise Blake, Cristina Fray and Chloe Hawthorn. I'm sure they're all fantastic, but whoever it was that I saw pitched themselves expertly between vulnerability and assertiveness, achieving the not-inconsiderable goal of making a prodigious genius likeable without displaying a hint of arrogance.

Good though everyone in the cast is, it's David Leonard's scene-stealing Miss Trunchbull that dominates memories afterwards.  She's a monstrous physical presence that fills the theatre every moment she's on stage.  There's a hint of Tim Curry's Frank N Furter about this performance, and Leonard plays her with a knowing pantomime campness.  Funny though she is, the amount we laugh at her doesn't detract from the cruelty of her sadism. This exaggerated caricature fits perfectly into the world constructed on stage.  This is largely because the show is reality filtered through the perceptions of children, good and evil bisected and the motivations of adults mysterious and unknowable.

Of course, though Matilda's world is seen from a child's perspective, it's Roald Dahl's idea of a child's-eye-view.  The Dahlian world is one of twisted monsters, twisted exaggerations whose entire character is dominated by their worst features.  This is most obviously visible in the children of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who (among other things) are embodiments pride, gluttony and envy, it's there in the greedy, stupid and violent giants of The BFG and it's clear as day on stage in Matilda in the Cambridge Theatre.  One trick that Dahl mastered was the creation of obviously didactic characters without the lessons they're constructed to convey ever feeling condescending..  Another was his mastery of language and his effortless  ability to convey the most noble and aspirational of messages with wicked, satirical humour.

This is all present in spades in Matilda, and much of the reason it's so good is because everyone involved in the production understands this.  It's a stunning achievement in musicals, an instant classic and immediately makes everything else on in the West End seem severely lacking in comparison.  What a fantastic  show.

'Matilda' is on in the Cambridge Theatre, hopefully for the foreseeable future.

Thanks to the Wilcox family for the ticket!

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