As my performance of Matilda, the dark, delirious musical sailing on to Broadway from success in London, was letting out the other night, an enormous crowd swarmed in the street, straining to get a look at Tom Hanks as he exited his mediocre show, Lucky Guy, next door. All this pandemonium accomplished, however, was to point up the fact that the most engaging theatrical evenings on Broadway of the past few years – from Once to The Book of Mormon – need no stars to work their magic. The thrill is all indoors.
Matilda, with book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, belongs in such company. I found the songs fairly disposable, the storytelling a little slack, and the sound design muddy.
But Rob Howell’s glistening, Scrabble-tile set! And director Matthew Warchus’s high-energy, inventive stagecraft! And Bertie Carvel in drag as the nastily imposing headmistress, Miss Trunchbull! When you have such attributes you can afford to force audiences to lean forward a bit. The producers of this $16m transatlantic transplant, which was hatched by the Royal Shakespeare Company, took a risk by not Americanising it nor diluting the acid tones of the material, which began life as a 1988 book by Roald Dahl. The verdict: risk rewarded.
Re-casting most of the roles for Broadway was more than sufficient alteration. Except for Carvel, who absolutely had to reprise the role of Trunchbull, most of the performers are new to this story, which will, in turn, be new to many patrons. Little Matilda is so unloved by her loutish parents that she seeks solace in her precocious reading of literary classics and by inventing the tale of an “escapologist” that she tells to the librarian Mrs Phelps. Matilda is played by a rotation of four well-drilled girls.
In Matilda’s home life and in her ultimate uprising with chums at school, who re-define what it means to be called “revolting children” by Trunchbull, the paramount experience is one of being bullied. Matilda showcases a rather relentless vision of cruelty, which in some ways is unmistakably British. But children all over the world can recognise the yearning to escape authority. And both they and their adult companions can watch this marvellous production and experience not an escape from their everyday problems, but from the usual Broadway-musical fare, which treats them as dolts.