Matilda the Musical

MAT-13.5-14

Originally written for the Guardian as part of their Musicals we love series.

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.

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The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, Royal Court

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The repeated central question of Dennis Kelly’s dark allegory, emblazoned in giant letters at the back of Tom Scutt’s set, is a troubling one: “goodness or cowardice?” Are supposedly moral decisions just a case of taking the easy road? Is a decision really the “right” one if no “wrong” alternative occurs to you? Are virtue and fear simply one and the same? But beneath it, running in a thick, throbbing artery through the metabolism of the play, is an even more troubling question: is there really any such thing as truth?

In an interview with Maddy Costa for The Guardian, Kelly states his preference for plays that ask questions over those that provide answers, admitting that he’s “not really sure” what The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas is about. I would, for the most part, agree that asking questions is more productive – not to mention more interesting – than offering solutions. A question leaves audiences thinking, while a firm conclusion can immediately alienate those who don’t agree with it. When everything is questioned, however, the provocation to look for answers is neutralised. Why search for a version of the truth if all truths are exposed as relative and ultimately meaningless?

Life’s stark absence of meaning is a revelation that forms the hinge of Kelly’s play. His eponymous protagonist, Gorge Mastromas, starts out as an essentially moral human being. When offered a choice, he takes the decent option, be it standing by a mate at primary school or remaining faithful to hastily voiced promises. Kelly and director Vicky Featherstone offer us this series of early incidents in Gorge’s life via an extended sequence of collective storytelling: the six cast members sit in a line of chairs at the front of the stage, sharing the history of Gorge’s life from the moment of his inadvertent conception. And my use of the word “history” is no accident; this simple but striking opening deliberately foregrounds the construction of historical narratives, offering a fragmented, unreliable and polyvocal account of Gorge’s life, told from a perspective that is never quite acknowledged or qualified.

Our protagonist’s Faust moment arrives when a ruthless businesswoman briskly informs Gorge that life is not what he has until that moment believed it to be – “it is not fair, it is not kind, it is not just”. But if he’s willing to sell his soul to the demons of cutthroat capitalism and merciless self-advancement, he can have whatever he wants: power, money, sex. The trick is simply to lie from the bottom of his heart, heedless of the consequences of those falsehoods. Embracing this new philosophy with only the lightest flicker of hesitation, Gorge is swiftly mounting the ladder to unimaginable wealth and power – an unstoppable capitalist juggernaut. Be it a company, a house or a woman, Gorge always gets what he wants. What follows is acquisition at the expense of all else, painting a sorry picture of our society’s trajectory and the lessons it implicitly instils in us.

It’s an old story, but one that is drenched in the giddily unfettered capitalism of the 80s and 90s, playing on the myth of indefinite growth and the conviction that everything is there for the taking if only individuals are willing to grab it. The main commodity to be traded, however, is not property or shares, but narrative itself. Gorge is a spinner and seller of stories – most explicitly with his fabricated bestselling memoir, but also in the fibs he blithely tells those around him in order to get ahead. And people want to believe these fictions. When speaking of “people”, that necessarily extends to the audience, all of us eager to grasp onto something solid, some narrative structure that makes sense of this world. By drawing attention to this, and to the lies that even our narrators are incessantly telling, the play makes us immediately doubt anything it tells us, as well as doubting our own interpretations of these versions of the truth.

The shifting ground of Kelly’s play is shaken further by this production – if, indeed, we can speak of the two separately, which is always a slightly disingenuous project. The dynamic division of Gorge’s story between the cast, delivered with an edge of irony, is reminiscent of now ubiquitous techniques of poststructural performance, at once bringing to mind the likes of both Forced Entertainment and Martin Crimp (useful reference points for the disruption of meaning and narrative). This engaging, teasing mode of delivery is contrasted with the far less compelling – and often overlong – “scenes” that pepper the play, offering an ever-so-slightly heightened variation on naturalism. Which offers the picture that is closest to the truth is left down to us, as the performance style of each in turn subverts its own stated veracity.

The figure of Gorge himself, meanwhile, is a tight knot of contradictions. When Tom Brooke first shrugs on the role of the anti-hero, he is a quivering, deferential employee, eager to please and anxious of hurting. After offering such a detailed portrait of this meek, decent man, it is difficult to dismiss his ghost, which hovers over all of Gorge’s subsequent deceptions. Never is he quite as convincing as when still in possession of his morals. Alongside the fleshed out emotional detail that Kate O’Flynn’s compassionate performance offers Louisa, the unlucky object of Gorge’s affections, Brooke’s mercenary entrepreneur is a skeleton of a character, at times nearing a caricature of capitalist greed. Yet this thinness seems oddly apt; it could be argued that it shows up the absurdity of this Game Theory style of self-serving logic in both life and drama. Human beings are strange, irrational creatures, and to drain them of that irrationality – be it by a capitalist logic of acquisition or a notion of drama that is built upon clear character motivation – leaves only empty shells.

The empty facade is also a recurring feature of Tom Scutt’s intelligent, thematically excavating design. His self-contained naturalistic spaces, which form the backdrop for the correspondingly “realistic” scenes, always offer a hint of superficiality, from the calculated blandness of a corporate office to the moneyed sheen of a hotel suite. By the time the scene shifts to Gorge’s lakeside palace and a dilemma that will test just how far he’s prepared to go to protect this painted paradise, any attempt at substance is abandoned, leaving only a flat simulacrum of a landscape on a screen behind the actors – the shimmering mirage of Gorge’s life, concealing only emptiness. Elsewhere in the design, the stubborn search for a pattern is offered visual expression: the constellations of a life are brightly dotted on an image of the night’s sky, paper is pinned to the walls in imitation of the detective’s evidence trail, and neon lines are traced over a graph.

Through this kind of detail, The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas offers much to chew and puzzle over, for the most part sustaining intellectual vitality over its testing two hour and 45 minutes running time. That hovering question mark over truth, however, niggles at me throughout. While I have other doubts about the piece (it’s far longer than it needs to be, for starters, and Gorge’s moral descent lacks the punch that I suspect it’s reaching for), my main concern is prompted by its political position; or, rather, how it seems to politically let itself off the hook. The questioning of truth is interesting in itself and follows the thread of much poststructuralist/postmodern (depending on how you like to define it) thought in suggesting that there is no foundational reality that we can appeal to, but it is equally in danger of rendering all truths equally invalid, thus making any attempt at morality pointless.

My mind is dragged back to the recent discussion Dan Hutton and I had about hope in theatre, which strayed into similar territory. In that dialogue I borrowed from Liz Tomlin’s new book Acts and Apparitions (a text that I increasingly think could be a vital reference point in navigating post-postdramatic performance practice), and it feels appropriate to return to Tomlin now. Her book traces the postmodern thought mentioned above and considers the possibility of making a radical gesture in theatre today, when any notion of the true or the real has received a thorough battering. To demonstrate how she grapples with this, I want to quote part of the text:

“Accepting that every narrative is implicitly ideological does not equate to the acceptance that any given narrative is thus beyond ideological analysis or distinction. The artist or critic’s choice to propagate one narrative over another will still result in a ‘real’ impact on the artists, the audiences and, to some degree at least, the ideological shape of the historical period in which the work is situated.” (pp.6-7)

In other words, the version of the truth that we choose to tell has an effect, whether or not it can appeal to some original, authoritative, universal truth. This version of the truth might even have the power to change the world, a power about which Gorge Mastromas feels distinctly ambivalent. Individuals such as Gorge can change things, but only for their own gain; beyond the certainty of lying, the universe is portrayed as cold, cruel and chaotic. If we choose to present an image of the world in which there is no truth, only lies, then perhaps there is a responsibility towards the “real” impact of that image. By seemingly refusing that responsibility and falling back on relentless uncertainty, Gorge Mastromas – for all its merits – feels like a bit of a cop out. If the question is “goodness or cowardice?”, I would tentatively suggest that Kelly errs towards the latter.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.

DNA, Unicorn Theatre

A group of teenagers are in trouble. Big trouble. What began as a playful bit of bullying – ‘a laugh’ – has spun wildly out of control and one of their classmates now lies dead in the woods. The only solution, as it appears to this shocked group of youngsters, is to cover it up. It seems like they might just get away with murder, but the lie that they have fabricated soon becomes bigger than they could have anticipated in Dennis Kelly’s unsettling thriller, originally written for the National Theatre’s Connections programme and now revived by the Hull Truck Theatre.

Unlike some other dramatists targeting troubled youth as their subject matter, Kelly does not patronise his adolescent protagonists, nor does he dwell gratuitously on their violence. The terrible act that binds the group together takes place off stage, as does a subsequent instance of violence, thus refusing to make these shocking events the visual centrepiece of the play. Instead, this incident becomes a springboard to explore this group of teenagers and their relationship to the world and one another, relationships that are heightened by the predicament they find themselves in. The central moral dilemma faced by the teenagers – is it better to come clean or to cover up what they have done for the greater good of the group? – is the hinge of the piece, but is far from the only issue that Kelly is prodding at.

Much of these issues are communicated through the character of Leah, who barely pauses for breath throughout most of the play. In a constant stream of chatter that betrays her brittle insecurity and desperate need to be liked, this waffling yet oddly insightful teenager touches on profound questions of time, meaning and the nature of humanity in a delicately poignant performance from Leah Brotherhead. While the unrelenting talk occasionally verges on the irritating, Kelly has wrapped up in Leah that very teenage contradiction of developing self-awareness and crippling anxiety, and through her seemingly light conversation begins to get close to the truth of what it is to be trapped in the confusion of adolescence.

Leah’s verbal diarrhoea is contrasted with the brooding, indifferent silence of her companion Phil, who seems more intent on his food than on anything she spouts. Crisps, sweets, a waffle meticulously drizzled with jam – rarely has food occupied such a demanding place in centre stage. Despite barely uttering a word, James Alexandrou pulls off the most genuinely disturbing performance of the piece as this determinedly mute yet commanding figure, and when he does open his mouth he formulates a plan to get the group out of trouble with the calm, calculated precision of a psychopath. The most impressive achievement of Kelly’s writing, however, is his lack of condemnation; while we appreciate that what this group of teenagers have done is deeply wrong, we continue to be compelled to care about them and even to an extent to understand the situation that they have backed themselves into. This, we can imagine, is just what a group of panicking teenagers might do when offered what seems to be a way out.

While the young characters themselves are for the most part rendered plausibly – if perhaps a little less foul-mouthed than might be expected under the circumstances – the world that Kelly has created has a nightmarish, surreal quality, with echoes of Lord of the Flies inevitably raising their voices. Before the squirming teenagers know it, they are blocked in behind the bars of their own lie, forced down the increasingly twisting paths of a complex labyrinth of deceit. They have fallen down the rabbit hole and there is no way out. The sense of heightened reality is intensified by the pulsing lights and dazzling projections of this production’s simple but striking design, although the mat of grass that is regularly dragged out for Phil and Leah’s scenes together seems an unnecessary item of clutter in an otherwise effectively minimal set.

For such a darkly atmospheric piece, however, there is a sense in which this feels oddly, paradoxically safe. The description of Adam’s death, while building escalating tension, lacks a chill of horror; we never experience the visceral shiver of shock that ought to accompany the darkening action. This may partly be due to a certain elusive ingredient missing from Anthony Banks’ otherwise impressive production, but I suspect that it might have more to do with the text’s uptake by the GCSE curriculum. I certainly have nothing against introducing schoolchildren to such compelling and challenging work – this is just the sort of thing that we should be encouraging young people to see – but I fear that this revival, which has clearly been created with students in mind, has taken the edge off Kelly’s script. Ironically, it is that very edge that might have really captured the attention of its young audience.

DNA runs at the Unicorn Theatre until 28 April and is then touring until 25 May.

Image: Simon Annand