Matilda the Musical and When to Review

Before we start, a disclaimer: despite the authority of the category at the bottom of this post, I’m not really sure if this is going to be a review or not. I did wonder, before setting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, to be accurate), if the web really needed another gushing outpouring of superlative praise for the musical that seems to be uniting all its audiences in unanimous, unadulterated love. Because, to be completely honest, if I didn’t think it would physically pain the eyes of any readers who might stumble across it, I’d be writing this entire review/not-a-review in capital letters to sledgehammer home JUST HOW AMAZING IT IS. And I’m not (often) one to indulge in hyperbole.

Similar thoughts prevented me from writing about Jerusalem; I hardly needed to tell the world that it was a gem of a play and that Mark Rylance gave an absolute blaster of a performance. Also, dare I say it, it felt like a bit of a luxury and a novelty to go to the theatre and not write about it immediately afterwards. But as valid as the latter reason may be – I am a firm believer in breaks from reviewing and even occasionally from theatre itself – I’ve begun to have doubts about the former.

When we see something truly spectacular, no matter how many others may have voiced the same reaction, we should be shouting about it. I’m not necessarily saying that you should all spend your precious spare time waffling away on blogs like me, but talk about it, tweet about it, tell your friends – tell anyone! While big West End shows like Matilda might not be particularly needful of support, brilliance can just as easily emerge from other places where it needs as much support as it can get. Spreading the word about such brilliance does not guarantee its success or even sometimes its survival, but it certainly doesn’t do any harm.

So I will proceed to shout about Matilda, or at least to write with almost unbounded enthusiasm about it. It might be a bit much and certainly a bit premature to say that this is the future of the British musical, but it has undoubtedly raised my sometimes floundering hopes for the musical genre in this country. A wittier, more intelligent, more vibrant show than this is hard if not nigh on impossible to find on the current musical theatre scene.

Musical theatre is often criticised for its vacuous silliness, but there is plenty of substance beneath the show tunes here. Despite being based on a book that was written over 20 years ago, Matilda has a sort of urgency that seems absent from many other musicals because it lightly touches on notions that are unfashionable but deeply important: the value of reading books, the transporting, transformational power of fiction, the vital need to speak out against injustice.

Of course, it’s also deliciously good fun. Everything that sparks and fizzles about Roald Dahl’s fiction has not only been lovingly kept intact but seems to be enhanced by Dennis Kelly’s script and Tim Minchin’s frankly dazzling lyrics – it as though both have channelled the spirit of Dahl himself. If anyone can translate Dahl’s wicked brilliance into music then it’s Minchin, who is capable of stringing together a good few revolting rhymes himself (the inspired pairing of ‘miracle’ and ‘umbilical’ in the opening number is a personal favourite).

The same spirit extends through Rob Howell’s alphabet-inspired set design, a multi-coloured jumble of letters that would be a Scrabble lover’s idea of heaven. The performances do not disappoint either; the adults are excellent, particularly Paul Kaye’s joyously grotesque Mr Wormwood, and the children are so extraordinarily talented that it’s almost depressing. But even with all this talent elsewhere, Bertie Carvel’s quietly terrifying, faintly mad, Thatcher-esque Miss Trunchbull comes very close to stealing the show.

I could gush on, but I almost feel as though I should apologise for this outpouring of enthusiastic praise. Enthusiasm is often seen as a dirty word, redolent of a lack of professionalism and of fandom that verges on the unsavoury – and, probably, of over-use of capital letters. Yet, in a time when budgets are being cut and art is being forced to prove its worth, surely we should be showing our enthusiasm (or whatever more palatable alternative you may have) more than ever? Not to celebrate mediocrity, but to give praise where it’s due and counteract the negative rhetoric with some positivity.

I suspect that this attitude is vastly optimistic and more than a tad naive. But while a few internet-based (and, let’s face it, minimally read) musings may not change the face of theatre in one fell swoop, we could all do much worse than to remember Matilda’s motto: ‘Even if you’re little you can do a lot, you mustn’t let a little thing like little stop you’.

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