Matilda (Melbourne, 2016)
It’s possible I’ve never been as obsessed with a movie as I was at age ten with Matilda. Released in 1996, it Americanised Roald Dahl’s novel of the same name, which may have been blasphemous to some, however it was met with critical acclaim and more importantly, my love. Fourteen years later my two loves collided and the musical came out, with music and lyrics by the unconquerable Tim Minchin. Another six long years later, and Melbourne finally gets to see it.Matilda (in this performance played by Alannah Parfett) loves to read, spending every day of her pre-school years in the library reading the likes of Tolstoy and Dickens. Her parents, the Wormwoods (Daniel Frederiksen and Marika Aubrey) scorn her love of books and are about as neglectful as you can get. When Matilda starts school, her teacher Miss Honey (Elise McCann) recognises her genius, while the evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (James Millar) makes school life hell for everyone.
The title role is a challenging one for young performers, with four girls sharing the role of Matilda in Melbourne. They are required to perform large chunks of dialogue in a tricky British accent. Even the Broadway actresses originally chosen to share the roles of Matilda struggled with this, and the weird accents are a little distracting. Nevertheless they are to be commended on a bloody hard role.
The adult leads are all fine, but none of them exactly stole the show. That honour goes – in this performance – to Daniel Stow as Bruce Bogtrotter who was an absolute delight. The ensemble displayed an infectious enthusiasm and the choreography by Peter Darling is joyful, exciting stuff. The set is stunning. Blocks of different shapes and sizes with various letters light up the stage and are used to particular impressive effect in the number ‘School Song’. Cast members big and small swing across the stage in the most emotive number, ‘When I Grow Up’ and do some light gymnastics in ‘The Smell of Rebellion’.
The story has been changed a bit, and probably not for the best. There is too much time dedicated to Matilda’s story of The Escapologist which will likely drag for the kids in the audience. It was a shame that the exciting scenes from the film set in Trunchbull’s house were also excluded (though I don’t think they were in the book). One of the greatest things about this musical, however, is its message about children being able to make a difference. In ‘Naughty’, Matilda sings “just because you’re little you can do a lot, you mustn’t let a little thing like little stop you”. The children eventually triumph over the (mostly) nasty adults, and there is an emphasis on the importance of learning. Matilda reads, the rest of her family watches television. One of them is much smarter than the others.
Tim Minchin is a legendary beast of a composer and lyricist and the music is the best part of the show. His lyrics are especially clever, just like Matilda herself. Though he’s known for his often crude, pessimistic, and often Atheist-centred songs, here he shows an optimism about the abilities of children. ‘Naughty’, ‘Quiet’, ‘When I Grow Up’ and the show stopping ‘Revolting Children’ are highlights, and the fact he lost the Tony to Cyndi Lauper is a rort, especially when the main song from her musical seems to simply repeat “Everybody say yeah yeah, yeah yeah, say yeah yeah, yeah yeah”.
I’d listened to the London cast recording prior to seeing this show live for the first time, and I’d expected big things. Sometimes when I see musicals I am overcome with emotion. I want to cry at how good they are. I thought this would happen with Matilda but it didn’t. Was it the Escapologist? The awkward accents? Or just the shitty Princess Theatre? It’s hard to say. For now I’ll keep the cast recording close to my heart.
Matilda is currently playing at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne.