By Sam Thielman
(Once again, we are happy to have Ad Week's Sam Thielman reviewing for Parabasis, this time he shares his take on "Matilda"):
Early on in the April 6 performance of “Matilda” at the St. James Theater there came an accidental moment so perfectly of a piece with the writing of Roald Dahl that I caught my breath and just sat there gaping for a moment. Ridiculous Mr. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert), brandishing a cigarette, barged into the delivery room where his selfish wife was fretting about having to give birth to the title character when she’d much rather be dancing the tango. The doctor brusquely informed Mr. Wormwood that he wasn’t allowed to have the cigarette in the delivery room, and Mr. Wormwood agreed that this occasion called for “a proper smoke,” produced a large cigar, and flung the cigarette into the audience, where it hit a small girl in the face.
This was sublime. I read and reread “Matilda,” and "James and the Giant Peach," and “The Witches,” and especially the utterly unloved “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator,” both as a child and as an adult, and their total unpredictability and frequently horrifying viciousness give them, oddly, both a sheen of surrealism and the ring of truth. Here were books about a mean, hysterical world full of mean, incomprehensible people and things, most of which are very dangerous, and this, not the imaginary world of happily ever after (which most adults do not even believe in but merely hope for), is the world children know most intimately.
Admittedly, it's also important to grow out of that conception of the world, and perhaps that’s why the musical version of “Matilda” pulls most of its punches. There are two really good, intentional moments of hysteria, both straight from the book, both involving the villainess of the show, Miss Trunchbull (played with hatchet-faced glee by a wonderful Bertie Carvel). In one, Miss Trunchbull pulls on a little boy’s ears until they stretch hugely out from his head; in the other, she grabs a little girl by her pigtails and flings her high into the air. Both, not coincidentally, are the least electronically complex effects in the show.
“Matilda” is beautifully performed by its entire cast, with Carvel and Ebert its standouts as cartoonishly horrible adults; Matilda herself, played by Oona Laurence at the performance I saw, was the equal of both men despite being roughly 1/8 the size of either one, her dinner-plate-sized eyes gazing out of an angular, thin face within a vast halo of matted hair. Together, the three of them have the right of it, and they're all so good with the audience that this ought to be one of those British neo-music hall shows that have overtaken the West End in recent years—foremost among them the perfectly serviceable “Billy Elliot” and “One Man, Two Guv’nors, Richard Bean’s awesome tribute to playwright Carlo Goldoni's "A Servant of Two Masters."
Certainly, there are dangers that come with adopting the book’s ideas as a perspective on the wider world—or, for that matter, the ideas in any other book by the author. If whoever decides these things ever gets around to naming the gifted writers who were personally the worst possible people, Roald Dahl, at the very least, will be on the shortlist, way down there with cretins like Wagner and Ted Hughes. A vicious anti-semite, a philandering misogynist, and a generally hideous bully, Dahl’s personal cruelty drove away nearly everyone associated with him, no matter how close the ties of family or finance. Indeed, after receiving yet another nasty letter from the writer in which Dahl threatened to leave Alfred A. Knopf, editor Robert Gottlieb, who had seen huge profits from “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “James and the Giant Peach” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” among others, practically kicked Dahl out the door.
“To be perfectly clear,” wrote Gottlieb to Dahl, “let me reverse your threat: unless you start acting civilly to us, there is no possibility of our agreeing to continue to publish you. Nor will I—or any of us—answer any future letter that we consider to be as rude as those we've been receiving.” Rudeness, for Dahl, was the key to his whole being, writing included.
“Matilda” is one of Dahl’s kindest, gentlest books, despite the grotesques of wicked parents and heartless headmistresses. Miss Honey is a truly good person who loves little Matilda more than anything, and Matilda has enough agency in her own life to have been taken for a feminist heroine on more than one occasion. But Dahl’s stories can’t be subsumed into traditional children’s narratives, pseudofeminist or otherwise; that is their entire point. They are about capricious death and incomprehensibility, utterly useless as exhortations to be yourself or follow your dreams or whatever else children are being instructed to do by musicals and movies. Which is wonderful, because those exhortations are mostly useless in and of themselves.
Tim Minchin has the advantage of being about as funny as Roald Dahl was and a much nicer person; I’ve seen his stand-up (which, actually, is mostly seated, since he plays the piano through large portions of it) and loved it. Some of it borders on the virtuosic, like Sam’s Mum, a song that also explains why Minchin isn’t more popular in the U.S.—about 40% of a given set is about how stupid he thinks Christians all are. His score for “Matilda” is spotty—the ballads are less interesting, but the novelty songs are uniformly excellent and the number that introduces the school, in which every measure ends with a slant rhyme for a letter of the alphabet, is frankly stunning. There’s also a song about television that opens the second act, which showcases the Wormwoods in all their vulgar glory, and it rules.
It’s primarily the libretto that causes the trouble with “Matilda.” For some reason the producers of the show didn’t see the need to pressgang a major dramatist into writing this one; check out the book credit on a recent megamusical and you’ll probably find at least a Tony award if not a Pulitzer Prize. Doug Wright of “I Am My Own Wife” wrote “Hands on a Hardbody,” cheesy jokes and all; multi-Tony winner Harvey Fierstein wrote the book for “Kinky Boots” (and also “Newsies”); hell, even “Shrek” had a script by no less than David Lindsay-Abaire. It’s not as though the Brits don’t know that a good script makes a good musical—fabulous Irish writer Enda Walsh wrote the spoken dialogue for “Once”—but Kelly just isn’t up to the task and there’s no reason he should be. He’s not yet a distinguished playwright, and musical theater is fucking hard.
So he shoehorns in some pablum about standing up for yourself and gives the story a pat ending in which Mr. Wormwood seems sorry to see Matilda go when he and his wife abandon her to live with Miss Honey. Ebert is a good actor; it’s a touching moment when he dimly realizes what a shit he’s been to the daughter he’ll never see again.
But it’s wrong. “Matilda leapt into Miss Honey's arms and hugged her, and Miss Honey hugged her back, and then the mother and father and brother were inside the car and the car was pulling away with the tires screaming,” Dahl writes. “The brother gave a wave through the rear window, but the other two didn't even look back. Miss Honey was still hugging the tiny girl in her arms and neither of them said a word as they stood there watching the big black car tearing round the corner at the end of the road and disappearing for ever into the distance.”
There is something utterly unique in contrasts this extreme, in this kind of disrespect for family and tradition, and those are what Kelly and the show’s producers shy away from giving us in “Matilda,” in favor of a kind of complexity of character that is familiar and not, actually, complex, since it’s shorthand for narratives we all know by heart.
Dahl, his own heart as black as pitch, knew worse.