Roald Dahl’s stories are infinitely adaptable for screen and stage, and perhaps none more so than Matilda, his 1988 children’s novel.
The book tells the story of an extraordinarily talented child, unluckily born to parents who do not value her intellect. She is so gifted, in fact, that her brain power can be channelled into telekinesis that she uses to hilarious effect against her gormless brother, imbecilic parents, and villainous headmistress, Mrs Trunchbull.
Like all of Dahl’s books, the story bridges the divide between the real world and the realm of fantasy, making it a tempting prospect for stage adaptation. The child-friendly material, the opportunities for juxtaposition of humour and pathos, not to mention the formidable presence of The Trunchbull (several years shot-put world champion and box chocolate-guzzler made famous by Pam Ferris in the 1996 movie adaptation) make this a no-brainer. In fact, it’s a travesty that no one’s taken a crack at it already.
Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly
It may be an obvious choice for adaptation but of course, this doesn’t make it easy to pull off. There’s the small detail of child actors – notoriously difficult to direct and by necessity lacking the experience of adults, it’s no wonder W C Fields once advised, “Never work with children or animals.” The search for a perfect Matilda brings with it the additional challenge of finding an actor with the intelligence and depth to convince as a child genius. Add to the mix the huge competition for musicals in the UK and the ruthless London theatre press (Love Never Dies, the sequel to the 1986 smash The Phantom of the Opera, is the latest casualty: poor reviews including Henry Hitchings of the Evening Standard deriding the show as “inspid and flimsy” saw it close after just three months.)
However, when the Royal Shakespeare Company opened Matilda: A Musical on their Stratford-Upon-Avon Courtyard Theatre stage on 9th December last year, all fears were alleviated. The two-month run sold out and reviews were almost universally positive. Chortle, an online theatre review site, said Minchin “perfectly captures Dahl’s mischievous spirit and subversive wit”, while The Guardian newspaper said it was “going to be a smash.”
It’s a treat to see a new musical which doesn’t rely on rehashes of 1970s pop songs for its material. Matilda: A Musical features sixteen original songs, written by beloved Australian comedian Tim Minchin (Chortle added that Minchin was “born to write” this adaptation). But this is far more than simply a chance for Minchin to showcase his considerable talent. The show directed by Matthew Warchus, who is probably most known for his popular stage adaptation of The Lord of the Rings in 2007 with a book by Dennis Kelly (2009’s Orphans and BBC’s popular sitcom Pulling).
Minchin has, by all accounts, seized the comic material from the book and transplanted it onstage, particularly enjoying the menacing characters of the Wormwoods. After interval, for example, Mr Wormwood marches across the stage with a placard apologising for the show’s support of reading and warns that trying reading at home could lead to “verucas of the mind.” The story remains relatively intact (although it includes a variation on the mafia subplot of the book) and Minchin and Kelly have maintained the menacing Trunchbull as a hammy caricature, as she was shown in the film. But it is the music which is the real surprise her: occasionally veering into the dark territory preferred by Dahl, it is used with tragic or humorous effect to bring the book to life.
After the Stratford-Upon-Avon run, the musical was greenlighted to move to the West End, where it will open at the Cambridge Theatre on 18th October. Many of the adult actors are reprising their stage roles, although the child parts will be cast again and, like the first run, the play is likely to include four young actors alternating the role of Matilda.
It seems that the combination of Dahl’s irrepressible characters and Minchin’s original score will ensure Matilda: A Musical sees an Australian release before too long.
If you do happen to be in London, you can see Matilda at the Cambridge Theatre, London, from 18 October 2011 to 12 February 2012.
VIDEO FEATURE: A trailer for the West End production of Matilda The MusicalVIDEO FEATURE: A trailer for the West End production of Matilda The Musical.