There is such a smörgåsbord of fair to middling musicals around these days (and, in fact, a lot of days in the past too) that I’ve come to expect fair to middling as the standard. There are a few truly remarkable musicals around, but they only come up once or twice a decade. Phantom, Les Miserables. Chess, perhaps. Can’t think of many others offhand, besides the nearly-tired Lloyd-Webber standards (Joseph & co) and the thoroughly-tired, ancient old R&H epics (Sound of Music & other living hills).
So (in my thoroughly uncultured, blinkered and uninformed opinion, before you point out the obvious) it’s not often that a new musical comes in which has a great story, has music which fits together and ties the whole thing into a piece, and appeals to a wide audience. So when we went to watch Matilda last night, my expectations were deliberately set low. Somehow, when you have something as characterful as a Roald Dahl story, with the visual impact of Quentin Blake, the only way it can go when you add in choreographed dance routines and dramatic situations that spontaneously combust into song is down.
Or not. Somehow, they managed to pull it off. The songs are catchy without being twee, the lyrics are intelligent and witty without alienating the children, and the storyline stays true to the book apart from two additions (one pointless, and the other unnecessary but worthwhile), one alteration and one minor subtraction. The key lines and themes repeat in a way that link the story together like I haven’t witnessed since Les Mis.
The opening sequence (where all the mummy’s little darlings and daddy’s little dears get pampered and fawned over) has all the sarcasm of Dahl, while managing to add something new to the mix. Lines like the teacher’s There seem to be a million of these one-in-a-millions, extraordinary is de rigueur/Above average is the average these days, go figure. And after the build up of My mommy says I’m a miracle…princess…pretty ballerina… My daddy says I’m a real little soldier… Matilda comes to the fore for the first time with the line above, and few more worse ones, and steals the show so thoroughly that you’re hooked for the rest of it. By the time she’d made me laugh, cry, sympathise and rejoice, I realised that seeing her antics on the stage had actually brought the book to life in a way I’d never have imagined. Then there’s a song the older schoolchildren sing when the new young’uns enter Crunchem Hall which is all about the terrors of school. But as they sing it over again, they put up the letters of the alphabet, and you realise that it is actually an alphabet song (Ending with “Why? – d’you hear wha’ ‘e said?”). Wonderful.
And the adults are perfectly portrayed. The Wormwoods are cheap, crass and low class. Complete with suit, platinum-blonde hair, and omnipowered telly. Miss Honey is sweet, tender and low on self-confidence. And Miss Trunchbull is phenomenal. Every little detail straight from Blake’s illustrations, including the bun, the trenchcoat, the huge belt, the spitting, and the left hand held all skew. The scene where the pigtailed girl gets flung is as close to the real thing as you can get in a theatre (at least in a country where the children aren’t dispensable).
So, when you go see it on Broadway, or the West End, remember, you heard it here first. (Which probably isn’t the case, as it’s been running for two months already, but I can dream a little, can’t I?)