When I left my job at the ACT Chamber of Commerce in March, my colleagues kindly presented me with some cash with which I was to take my daughter to a West End show when we arrived in London. Although I fully intended to do this anyway, it was hardly going to be possible to see every show worth seeing here. The decision, I’m almost ashamed to admit, came down to celebrity. Once I’d seen Tim Minchin‘s name, there was no doubt about whether I would see this show.
I booked for a date early in June shortly after arriving in London, but then found myself cast in The Inner Life of Sophie Taylor, and the performance dates clashed. Reorganising myself around the production company’s overly draconian ticketing rules, I tried again for early July, and promptly forgot about the booking until a little message popped up on my phone a couple of days beforehand. It really is nice to encounter surprises you plant for yourself!
My girl wasn’t all that keen in the lead up. She is, after all, almost a teenager, and therefore doesn’t like things planned for her. I attempted to appeal to her baser instincts by locating a purveyor of chips and gravy (a rare find in London, and never of notable quality), but even then, as we queued for the cheap seats in the nose-bleed section, I endured the Scorn of the Adolescent. Right up until the show started, of course. For a girl who is accustomed much more to fringe and pro-am theatre, it was an engaging spectacle, and the show held her attention throughout (though she denies it).
As one would expect from a show that sells premium tickets in the £100+ range, it was technically brilliant. The continual transformation of the set was enthralling, the performers were almost as hilarious and engaging as Tim Minchin usually is, and though I’d never encountered this particular Roald Dahl tale in literary form, it conveyed all the magic of his other works. Best of all, it was absolutely hilarious! Though the theme is serious, and delivers a strong message about personal efficacy and justice, it is nonetheless an absolute romp.
Matilda does suffer from some of the more common ills of musicals. The characters could use more development, and spectacle sometimes overtakes the story. Nonetheless, I could certainly relate the image of the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, to my frustrations with my daughter’s current school, and their staff’s attitude to students. It opened up some conversation afterwards about the poor behaviour of her teachers, which was of course valuable, as I was able to remind her that teachers aren’t always right and utilise Matilda’s admonition that sometimes you’ve got to be a bit naughty.
I would love to have been able to engage with the character of Matilda more fully, though. As much as I felt her journey, I wanted to see more humanity, and I have to hold myself back from excusing this shortcoming simply because the actor, Cara Jenkins, is barely 10 years old. Her performance is impeccable in technical terms, and of course that alone is an achievement at such an age, but as much as she had me on her side, I didn’t quite engage with her as a character as much as I engaged with her as an actor. And that’s a real problem. That there is the crux of the matter; to suspend disbelief we must forget that there is an actor involved at all; otherwise it’s a mere spectacle, and not a story.
But maybe I saw her on a bad night. Jenkins is otherwise the living embodiment of Matilda’s line “you mustn’t let a little thing like ‘little’ stop you”, and gets ten points just for that. She is cheering on my side and though the performance may not have moved me at the gut level as it might have, she absolutely engaged me as an educator disgusted by the modern obsession with denying students their humanity. The story’s railing against the mock latin motto by which the British and Australian Ministers for Education pursue their evil plans, bambinatum est maggitum, or ‘children are maggots’ is entirely necessary. It really was a spectacular evening overall, and unlike most musicals, it tells a necessary story.
My Musical Theatre playlist just got bigger, and by the time I return to Oz, I expect I will have the best numbers memorised.
My daughter’s post is over on our walkabout blog.
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