‘Matilda The Musical’ is not simply a little bit naughty, but a little bit of everything that makes for a memorable night at the theatre
The original story of Matilda by Roald Dahl needs little introduction. It was written in 1988, sadly when I was already 15 so would have considered myself too old for it by then, but it is a book we’ve likely read to our children, or they to themselves, boys and girls alike.
Matilda the Musical, which debuted in London in 2011, is a great story with great songs that will make you cry and laugh, perhaps even at the same time! It’s a truly special place in which to indulge, for just a few hours, full of magical powers — some imagined, some real, and much somewhere in-between, just to keep you guessing!
Matilda is a young, punchy and fiercely intelligent young girl. Sadly for her though, her obnoxious parents, Mr and Mrs Wormwood, see her as an irritant and a freak. They are focused on trying to make a fortune selling second hand cars, and are baffled by her love of books, as opposed to the telly, and continually try to stop her devouring them as she does. (I’m not sure about you, mamas, but I can only dream of having that problem with my children!).
When Matilda goes to school, she is quickly spotted by her teacher Miss Honey as extraordinary. And whilst Miss Honey sees something special in Matilda, Matilda sees something special in her, too. But the beauty of the story is, despite battling with the infamous baddy, Miss Trunchbull, they both end up rescuing each other.
There are so many moments to salivate over. Times when the audience was so silent, as Matilda would say, you could hear a fly burp! But there were others where it was delightful mayhem – silly rude noises, more cake than you can possibly eat, and a school revolution. Things that make up childhood dreams because we know them also to be adult nightmares! It’s all part of the very clever fun!
Much must be credited to Roald Dahl for creating such fabulous and engaging characters as well as Quentin Blake for his exquisite illustrations. These are clearly recognisable throughout the show, in the costumes, the staging, and the characterisation. The detailing is priceless. But Dennis Kelly’s script and Tim Minchin’s music have taken it from the page to the stage masterfully.
A significant departure from the book is the tragic story Matilda tells to the librarian, Mrs Phelps, of an escapologist and an acrobat. The tale is brought to life beautifully with theatrics amongst the books, and reveals itself to be something of Miss Honey’s past. This story within a story, a play within a play, ingeniously weaves together both their lives, snatching parts of one, blending it with the other, leaving the happily ever after ending to be totally as it should.
Another notable change is that Mr Wormwood makes it very clear he is disappointed he has a daughter and not a second son. He constantly refers to Matilda as ‘boy’ and she is always correcting him. Her intelligence is never in doubt, and she knows it, and Kelly’s evolution of the story in this context, although long before the #metoo movement, is a neat and fitting way to underline female strength and courage.
Aside from the cars and ballroom dancing, the Wormwoods’ life revolves around the TV. There’s even a silly song about it! Entertainingly, however, the screen constantly shows the image of the Test Card Girl which many mamas will recognise instantly! But just to explain, for those mamas who are perhaps a little younger, the image was shown in the UK when there was no on air program, back in days when there were only a three channels and Netflix wasn’t even a glint in someone’s eye!
“When I grow up”, sung on the swings, the physical push back and forth towards the audience is strong and exhilarating. I held my breath as each cast member swooped up and out, over the stage. What would happen if something went wrong, or someone missed a push…but no one did! The energy was electric.
And as they swung splendidly, it occurred to me I hadn’t really swung like that since I was small. As a child I’d spend hours contemplating life on a swing, watching the earth whoosh past below, pushing myself to go as high as I possibly could. But now, just a few pushes and the motion makes me seasick! I listened to the words “I will eat sweets every day…watch cartoons till my eyes go square…cos I’ll be grown up!” and more! “Treats every day” and wondered wistfully why is it we are dying to grow up when we’re young, how it’s rather missold, how we crave that carefree existence when we get there?
“The School Song” is a magical piece of theatre, too, a master class combining slick direction, clever choreography and wonderful lyrics. Seeing is believing really but, as the words are sung, the alphabet appears in blocks through the school gates. Its physical structure and timing makes for an exhilarating number!
Although the whole cast is strong, Miss Trunchbull steals the show. But Singapore’s very own Matilda, Sofia Poston, deserves much applause and praise, too. Playing a role that any young girl who dreams of the being on stage would covet, she takes it on with guts and aplomb.
Whilst only 9, she is so petite she looks much younger and could plausibly be the precocious 5 year old from the book. Standing in the centre of such a huge stage she looked minute, and almost exactly as if Quentin Blake himself had drawn her there! The audience held their breath. And then she sang, filling the vast auditorium with such ease and dancing with such joyful energy, too; her tiny frame happily embraces this huge role!
Matilda is a story about the power of books – words, as Matilda says, which are needed to make sentences, and sentences make stories – but the musical is undeniably about the power of live theatre, too. As the story unfolds, the songs flow, the hilarity ensues, the occasional tear is shed, the audience is entranced by the pure magic of it all.
Leaving the theatre, there was an indescribable buzz in the crowd — everyone was smiling. Some were taking selfies, many were deep in chat, some were being filmed by the flurry of film crews an opening night brings, and I’m sure all were humming something in their heads!
You don’t need brains like Matilda’s, mama, to see why the show has swept the board globally with top accolades. Even the Wormwoods would get it! The magical run first began in 2011 and has continued with vigor and aplomb ever since, winning 7 Olivier Awards, the most ever won by a musical, and five Tonys on Broadway, too. It’s expected Matilda will do for the Royal Shakespeare Company the next 25 years, what Les Mis has done for it for the last 25. A film version is also in the works.
I said it before, mamas, and I’ll happily say it again: If you can, don’t hesitate, grab a ticket, go! But, if you can’t, pick up the book and read it with your kids, even if they think they’re too big for it now! Do a silly voice, make a paper plane and giggle at who can make the loudest burp! It’s silly and foolish, but undisputedly healthy and fun. It will take you back to a place you went to often as a child, a place that Matilda the Musical reminds us is good to keep visiting; one where the magic of words is real and anything is possible, however old you are. The only thing stopping you… is you!