Matilda, Cambridge Theatre, London

Where 1984 was gripping, exhilarating and exhausting, Matilda was lovely, light and fun. The opening number riffs somewhat on Monty Python’s “we’re all individuals” as all of these kids sing about how special and unique and wonderful they all are. Where the Pythons play the lone ordinary person for laughs, this one is decidedly darker, with the music and melody going sad as Matilda introduces herself, singing about how she’s not special and not wanted. The joke of how everyone is special and unique keeps the scene from getting too dark, but it’s definitely got an edge to it. This is a pattern throughout most of the musical, with the darkness of Matilda’s home situation and the grimness of her school being lightened by various jokes. In particular, the people that inflict most pain (Matilda’s parents, the Headmistress) are comical figures.

The Headmistress is played by a man in drag, which works exceedingly well, although it may not be entirely politically correct these days. Her evil is played to the audience as a joke, but its consequences are played as real and serious, which works really well as a device for leavening comedy with humour.

I was surprised by how late in the piece Matilda’s ability to move things with her mind is introduced. It only appears three times. The emphasis is really on Matilda being special because she’s so smart and already knows how to read when she starts at school and likes going to the library and making up stories. In other words, she’s special in ways that I expect resonate for lots of kids in the audience. That she’s special in ways that make lots of people in the audience all feel special in the same way is unexamined, and I wouldn’t want it otherwise. It’s not that sort of show.

As you’d expect with music by Tim Minchin, the lyrics have plenty of clever rhymes and are generally top-notch. I wished (as I usually do with musicals) that I could hear the words better; in particular, the kids bits were sung in a pretty high register that I had trouble with. I was generally impressed by the kids, though: there were a lot of them and they were actually good, which is not what I expect of child actors.

The writing generally was fun, with three figures deliciously representing various kinds of evil: the bumbling father, the uncaring mother, and the sinister headmistress. The choreography was fun too, and it all ended happily ever after. It was a bit strange, though: there’s a moment when Matilda has the chance to be whisked away to a happier life, but she seems to want to stay with her parents. Then there’s a scene where nothing relevant changes, and then she makes the opposite decision and chooses to be whisked away. I guess the glimmer of Matilda’s parents liking her and Matolda wanting to stay with her parents makes leaving into a genuine choice, which makes the departure lighter in a way that would be lacking if we still thought her parents wholly indifferent. And that makes the happy ending even happier. Hooray!

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