MTAS Blogger Charlie Reynolds (@charlieareyno) looks at the success of Matilda the Musical and why it’s still going strong!
Matilda the Musical is based of course on the novel of the same name by Roald Dahl. It was written by Dennis Kelly, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. The musical is told through the eyes of Matilda, a charming five year old girl who loves reading. At the age of five Matilda is able to overcome obstacles caused by her TV obsessed family and her horrid headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. It is one of the West End’s most critically acclaimed productions, smashing theatre land records when it scooped seven awards at the 2012 Laurence Olivier Awards. It’s one not to be missed.
Matilda Wormwood loves to read books, surviving through the stories she reads, ultimately giving her the courage to challenge Miss Trunchbull. The main crux of the show is her love of books, it defines who she is and make us as an audience adhere to her. For Matilda it isn’t just the physical aspect of the book she loves, but the stories that are within them. One aspect of the show I want to talk about first is that of the story Matilda tells Mrs Phelps within the library. Matilda visually tells us a story about an escapologist and an acrobat, first using two rag doll puppets to act out her tale, but later they come to life as she tells her story. It is a great addition to the piece, not only does it portray the vivid imagination she has when it comes to reading but it is a wonderful way to show Matilda’s desire to have parents, like in the story, who actually care about her. Matilda doesn’t simply hates her parents, but we learn that she longs for her parents to love her, humanising her character much more.Matilda is in fact sent to her room as punishment because she continues to read. She climbs up to the bookshelf above her bed and perches there whilst she sings “Naughty” – by reading her books she becomes inspired by the stories. Matilda begins to realise she can be in control of her own story and discovers she can engineer her own happy ending, deciding to get even with her parents by putting her mother’s peroxide into her father’s hair oil. Her courage progresses throughout the show and it is the stories she reads that allows her to do this. She questions the treatment of Bruce, by that of Miss Trunchbull, shouting “That’s not right!” not scared to stand up to probably one of the most scariest characters in children’s literature.
Rob Howell won the Olivier Award for his set design of the musical and there is no surprise why. It is composed entirely of large wooden, Scrabble like titles with letters on them. They arch over the stage and spill out towards the balcony. Upon walking into the theatre you realise words are hidden in the jumble of letters, from escapologist to read. The tiles continue as building blocks throughout the show, a column indicates the home of the Wormwood’s and a huge jumble of tiles and books makes up the library. It further supports Matilda’s reliance on her books and how inspiring words can be. When Matilda and her friends walk up to the gates of Crunchem Hall, a scary sight for any five year old, bars twist this and that way, letting you know that the school is no ordinary one. The inventiveness of the set really takes off in “School Song” where coloured blocks of various sizes are shoved through the school gate into what you realise are slots. As each letter is placed the actors clamber all over the gate, siting and climbing up the blocks, it was incredible.
Miss Honey, Matilda’s teacher and librarian Mrs Phelps are kind, generous and loving, both taking a shine to Matilda. Miss Honey is an interesting character as she possesses a rare gift, she can make her students adore her, and their adoration makes them into willing learners. Miss Honey soon becomes impressed by Matilda’s scholastic abilities and decides to recommend to the headmistress that Matilda should be moved to the top class. She becomes frightened as she stands outside her office, feeling pathetic that she is unable to stand up to her. This is the first time we are introduced to Miss Trunchbull, a child-hating Olympic hammer-throwing champion. Miss Trunchbull is famously strong and her masculinity is the source of her insanity and the essence of her cruelty. In the novel she contains every trait of a man, so it arguably works well hat the character is played by one. The character has a hatred of femininity, specifically she can’t stand pigtails. An excellent scene is recreated where at the sight of Amanda Thripp’s pigtails she grabs her hair and starts swinging her around until she tosses her into the air. It was a wonderful bit of stagecraft and is one of my favourite scenes from the movie so I am glad they were able to replicate it.
The choice to use a male actor was really interesting, but it does reflects Dahl’s representation quite well. Dahl paints Miss Trunchbull as a male inside and out. Her physique is gigantic and formidable according to Dahl, with big shoulders, thick arms and a powerful voice. She avoids feminine dress, wearing breeches rather than a skirt and the sport she plays is considered typically masculine. Miss Honey acts as a polar opposite, filled with femininity, she is motherly, gentle and sweet. Her essence of character stands in stark contrast to the Trunchbull’s dominance. Miss Honey, unlike Matilda, struggles to find the courage to stand up to her. It can be interesting to analyse the essence of gender further whereby Matilda is defiant in the face of gender predestination, and lies as a message of empowerment. Her mother chose looks instead of books and thinks that it is more important. She is able to teach Miss Honey to stand up to Miss Trunchbull and fight back.
Both Mr. and Mrs Wormwood follow a similar trait to that of Miss Trunchbull in which they hate books. At the beginning of the second act, Matilda’s father comes out and urges children to not imitate what they have been watching, the enjoyment of reading. Her mother resents Matilda because her birth prevented her from attending a ballroom competition with her dance instructor Rudolpho, also finding Matilda’s reading a bizarre habit. It is evident that they are both deep down frightened of their daughter as due to her love of books, she is intelligent enough to challenge their morals. It is painful to see these adults attack what Matilda holds dearest – her books and the stories within them. What is important is that the musical understands that the story of Matilda is not just about good vs. evil, but I feel their is a deeper theme behind the story. In this story, we see adults trying to control the children’s thoughts and outlook on life because as they are adults they know what it is best. However, as an audience we can see that the children are able to use their own strength and knowledge to fight back.
The song, ‘When I Grow Up’ reflects a similar meaning. As a song, it turns to the adults and questions their outlook. The song almost causes adults to regret that they have left a childhood behind, have lost their naivety and the assumption that problems could be solved easier as they got older. It was quite a good contrast seeing the adult cast playing the older children swing on the swings, as it shows that as adults we can remember the freedom that only a child’s imagination can grant us. The children push to their limits, longing to leave the ground behind and reach higher towards adulthood, to a sense of escape and freedom. By contrast when Miss Honey walks on stage, she sits on one of the swings clinging to the naive view that adulthood is whats needed, that she feels she needs to grow up. Instead, through the words of Minchin, we realise that children are the true agent for change in matters that affect them. Maybe when we were kids we wanted to grow up, but only because it meant we could fulfil what we wanted to do as kids, from eating sweets all day and watching TV late at night. It is the perfect song that reflects Dahl’s celebration of children and childhood. Minchin causes us to look back on what we longed for, and ironically, feel a sudden longing for precisely what we had, a childhood.
Matilda is one of those exceptional shows where every element feels inspired. It is one of the brightest shows in the West End, revealing talent in front and behind the scenes. The curtain call was fantastic, everyone coming out on a scooter. It was playful, so sweet and very clever, just like the entire show.
All photos have been taken from the official Matilda the Musical website owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company.