For a Better Time, Add Magic

A review of Matilda by Elena Maria Piech

Photo of Matilda and Miss Trunchbull on Matilda the Musical’s website.

The children in Matilda the Musical have talent. From understanding how to time a joke, to belting loud notes, to moving to the music, the children in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Matilda steal the show. Although the children do an incredible job with their stage presence, the story and its message to children falls a little flat.

Matilda The Musical is the retelling of Roald Dahl’s classic book about a young genius who lives with parents that worship the television and ostracize Matilda for reading. The more Matilda distances herself from her family, the further she dives into books. By the age of 6 she can already read Tolstoy, multiply complex equations, create elaborate stories  — oh, and later on she gets magic powers too.

Unfortunately, the musical does not seem to take advantage of the source material created by Dahl. Matilda only discovers her magic powers during the last 15 minutes of the show, and she only uses her powers three times — two of which are for unimpressive actions. More of a focus is put on providing over-the-top musical numbers, and there seems to be less of a focus on Matilda’s personal development. The show seems too focused on what can be done to make audience members laugh, rather than what will make them think.

Most reviewers, such as Lyn Gardner from The Guardian, believe the show has some type of thoughtful meaning. According to Gardner, “the message, that you can control your own story, and rebellion and protest can defeat the bullies, is deeply embedded.” But, if one were look at the totality of the musical, he or she would notice how the show overall lacks that deeper message. Matilda the Musical is not about defeating bullies, if anything, Matilda’s form of problem solving involves allowing for her bullies run away, rather than having them learn their lesson.

One bully who gets is the easy end is Miss Trunchbull, the director of Matlida’s school. Trunchbull believes in the mantra that “Children are Vermins” and never receives punishment for her horrible treatment of children and her family members. Instead she runs away, and the entire cast celebrates. Asking for retribution is far too dark of a form of conflict resolution for a kids musical, but it needed some better form of  lesson-learning for the antagonists. Although Trunchbull’s final scene was poorly executed, one thing the show did right was the casting of Craige Els as Trunchbull. Lyn Gardner from The Guardian perfectly describes Trunchbull when she says “Imagine a cross dressing King Herod on steroids with a jutting bosom that is deployed like a weapon of mass destruction to wipe out small children at 100 paces.”

Els acting worked. Els singing work. Comedian Tim Minchin created the score, and it worked wonderfully during individual songs. But, either due to poor planning or sound mixing, oftentimes it seemed hard to understand what the large choruses sang. With an individual singer, Minchin’s songs worked. They could evoke a deep and serious meaning from audience members or they might get a catchy tune stuck in their head. But, when it came to large groups moving and dancing, the words seemed to be a mix of inaudible muffles and loud notes. Sometimes a chorus could be understood, but if a show on London’s West End is marketing itself as a musical, then audiences should be able to hear the music.

Even if audiences mightmatilda not understand the lyrics to large chorus’ songs, they would have no problem viewing the stage. Rob Howell came up with the stage design for Matilda and it worked to evoke a sense of childhood, wonder, and curiosity. Surrounded among a sea of different box letters, the stage worked to keep the show going. The transitions between different sets were smooth and sometimes the transitions themselves became part of the show. Even if the story lacked development, certain songs might have been hard to hear, at least audiences would enjoy looking at the stage.

The stage design worked. The music sometimes worked and sometimes failed. The cast interacted well with one another and the audience. The resolution of conflicts was poorly executed. The plot did not enable Matilda to develop as a character. Matilda the Musical had some things going for it, but it could have used a bit more literal and theatrical magic.

Fiction and non-fiction author E. A. Bucchianeri describes theatres as “curious places,  magician’s trick-boxes where the golden memories of dramatic triumph linger like nostalgic ghosts, and where the unexplainable, the fantastic, the tragic, the comic, and the absurd are routine occurrences on and off the stage.” Matilda the Musical had the potential to create all of these feelings — even literal magic. Unfortunately, it seemed too focused on what could make children laugh, rather than what could make them think and feel.

Snapchat Filters available at the Cambridge Theatre

Matilda Snapchat.png

The three Snapchat filters available for download at this theatre were the Red Covent Garden image, the London image with Hearts, and the Multicolored Camden image.

(1) Red Covent Garden – This image looks classy and elegant, much like the inside of the Cambridge Theatre.

(2) London with Hearts – This image suggest something suitable for both tourist and children. The Matilda audience seemed to include both.

(3) Multicolored Camden – This worked to describe the Matilda environment. The image looks as if a child might have colored the border and the rugged text for Camden suggest a teen might have doodled on the text. This works to describe Matilda because it is a musical that has jokes and plot points suitable for children, teens, and adults.


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