In a recent episode of Outnumbered, a headmistress in the mould of Roald Dahl‘s deliciously vile adults announces her desire to ban the beloved author. “He’s probably ruined more children’s lives than polio,” she sneers. “Ruined them with the ludicrous belief that all adults are stupid and can routinely be outwitted by small children and the occasional fox.”
This is perhaps Dahl’s greatest achievement. Adults are fallible, flawed, fickle creatures, and we could all do with an occasional reminder of that. None of Dahl’s resourceful young characters do this quite as well as the heroine at the heart of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical adaptation, who outsmarts her adult oppressors with the triple threat of brains, guts and telekinesis.
The irresistible charm of this musical is not so much its music, its book, its design or its performances, but the appealing streak of naughtiness that runs through them all. Listening to Matilda sing “Even if you’re little, you can do a lot, you/ Mustn’t let a little thing like little stop you”, I was suddenly eight years old again, cracking open the pages of Dahl’s book and feeling an instant connection with his bright, brave and bookish protagonist.
Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s version is that rare thing: a stage adaptation that manages to both honour the spirit of the original and confidently stake out its own identity. The insertion of songs is vindicated at every turn as they allow mischief and emotion to explode out of the narrative, from the gleeful rebellion of Naughty to the bittersweet optimism of When I Grow Up. Minchin is an inspired choice as composer and lyricist, marrying his own brand of irreverence with that of Dahl’s and throwing some wickedly clever rhymes into the bargain (see the dazzling pairing of “miracle” and “umbilical” in the opening number).
And there is plenty of substance beneath Minchin’s witty tunes. Dahl’s narrative of a young girl overcoming cruelty and neglect with a little help from the books she voraciously reads carries a number of implicit but never patronising messages – about the importance of standing up for oneself, the value of intelligence and the power of the imagination. Then there are the characters: the smart, plucky protagonist, her fantastically grotesque parents, and the frankly terrifying Miss Trunchbull, who had not a little of the Iron Lady about her in Bertie Carvel‘s interpretation.
The show’s real sucker punch is saved for after the interval, as When I Grow Up hits the stage with a sudden, unexpected wallop of sentimentality. Just like Dahl’s prose, the musical boasts a direct line back to childhood, leaving younger audience members grinning with recognition and their adult counterparts misty-eyed with nostalgia.
What Matilda is strongest on, though, is an aspect that musicals often neglect in favour of razzle and dazzle: storytelling. It says a lot that Kelly, a seasoned playwright, was brought on board before Minchin; the RSC wanted to get the story right. It was a canny choice. Matilda is, at heart, a story about stories. Accordingly, the musical is drenched in narrative and bursting with words, right down to the brightly coloured letter blocks of Rob Howell’s gorgeous set – a Scrabble lover’s paradise.
Despite now being a hit on the West End and Broadway, with a clutch of awards to its name, Matilda’s fate was by no means secured. As Kelly has stressed, no commercial producer would take the risk that the RSC did in commissioning the show and putting it in the hands of two writers with little to no previous musical theatre experience. If ever there was an argument for arts subsidy, this joyous, playful, rebellious musical has to be it.