Following critically acclaimed seasons in London’s West End and Broadway, Matilda the Musical has finally made it to Sydney in all its nostalgia-fuelled glory. The story of a remarkably clever little girl with magical abilities kicking back against neglectful parents and a treacherous headmistress has inspired adoration by multiple generations, but has the musical theatre treatment done it justice?
I spoke to Marika Aubrey, the woman stepping into the glittery six-inch heels of Mrs Wormwood (our protagonist’s mother), ahead of witnessing the show for myself at the Lyric Theatre.
In her everyday life Aubrey says she is very much a “Matilda at heart”, with her love of books and quiet. “Her delusional sense of vanity and self belief is so ‘out there’ and so bold it has asked a lot of me to be that confident,” she says of her boisterous role. She could have fooled me–witnessing the statuesque Aubrey sauntering onto the stage in an almost offensively bright and ruffled salsa-dancing outfit, towering grotesquely over the other members of the cast with a broad English accent and a wig sitting six inches off her head, you’d never suspect that she had any reservations about playing this delightfully vain villain.
“I think there’s something very challenging about remaining true and realistic in a heightened role–when you are playing something that on the surface is very loud and is very bold, and is very broadly comic… you must keep it truthful and real, otherwise its pantomime, and you never want it to be pantomime,” explained Aubrey. “This is the Royal Shakespeare Company after all, and everything comes from the acting and the characters first and foremost.”
Indeed, just about all of the characters in this adaption strike a perfect balance between comic and authentic; it could have been very easy to turn Dahl’s work into a caricature.
James Millar stole the show on many occasions with his incarnation of the delightfully horrendous Miss Agatha Trunchbull, the extreme costume and mannerisms tapered with strong and subtle acting. The portrayal of Miss Honey in this production left something to be desired, however. While her hesitating sweetness was true to form, I found myself waiting for a certain gumption to kick in, but it was never truly realised.
The international acclaim of this musical is a testament of how well it has done to escape the trappings of comparison. While many generations entered the theatre with Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel imprinted in their minds, I was amongst the many who had formed a special childhood association with the 1996 film adaption.
One stark point of contrast in this adaption is the presence of Matilda’s magical powers, or lack thereof. Instead of making the child protagonist’s telekinetic abilities a focal point from the get-go, the show focuses more on Matilda’s other abilities–her brilliant storytelling and astonishing academic abilities, her piercing wit and the devious pranks she plays on her neglectful parents. With a mesmerising combination of music, scripting and staging to play up these devices (including the brilliant unfolding of an unsuspectingly integral story Matilda tells to the librarian Mrs Phelps, incorporating circus costumes and shadow puppets), I was, honestly, hardly bothered by the lack of magic tricks.
Perhaps in musical theatre it is difficult to portray the nonchalant wisdom I’ve come to expect of Matilda herself, but unlike the red-bow-sporting girl in the film, this Matilda comes across more like an outspoken Hermione Granger; not to discredit the captivating performance by the talented little girl taking the reins on the night I saw the show (which one she was of the four children undertaking the role for this production, I’m actually not quite sure).
The talented child actors are a credit to this production, I often found myself enviously marvelling at how they flawlessly recounted their lines, belted out their songs and managed not to fall off the stage as they took to the swings during the excellently staged sequence for the tear-jerkingly lovely ‘When I Grow Up’. Classmates Bruce Bogtrotter and Matilda’s best friend Lavender were particularly special.
Aubrey attributes the success of the show to Dennis Kelly’s immaculate script: “He’s such an excellent playwright… his script is so economic… if you didn’t have every single line that we have in the show, something would be lost… I know that everything I’m saying is there for a reason and you have to honour it.”
Kelly’s script fits seamlessly with Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics. While many musicals can often feel laboured with their constant injections of musical routines, almost every song in this production surprised and delighted me with it’s accompanying staging and choreography. The foreboding ‘School Song’ performed to Matilda and her classmates by the older children on their first day of school was particularly impactful as they climbed and swung from the school gates.
Tim Minchin has been widely praised for his input as composer and lyricist, his cheeky musical comedy an unlikely match to bring Roald Dahl’s classic story to life. It is perhaps Minchin’s tendency to “never show the light without the dark” that makes his lyrics the perfect match for Dahl’s work.
“Its that edge we’re riding of the humour and the darkness that I think is always very interesting, compelling [and] really entertaining,” said Aubrey, when talking about this contrast. “The Wormwoods are the funny characters, but they’re also villains.”
She elaborated: “What’s important to remember is that all the grown ups are seen through our protagonist… the audience is taken on a journey of these characters but always through her eyes, and they’re very real to her.” Mrs Wormwood and her husband are really quite neglectful, abusive parents when you stop to analyse it–but Aubrey and co-star Daniel Frederikson do comedic justice to these larger-than-life characters.
Fans of Minchin’s observational comedy will sense some familiarity in much of the lyrics, right from the opening number, ‘Miracle’. As spoilt ‘princes’, ‘princesses’ and their blindly doting parents paraded around the awesomely decorated stage, I was feeling a sense of déjà vu for Minchin’s hilarious yet cynical commentary of his ‘So Rockra. The more emotional songs brought recollections of his achingly beautiful not-quite-Christmas song ‘White Wine In The Sun’ to mind.
Marika believes there is something about Minchin’s mischievous brand of “Aussie larrikin humour” that translates so well to audiences. “It’s not definable, there’s nothing overtly Australian in any of Matilda,” explained Aubrey. “I think there definitely is a flavour to the wit and lyricism in the way he writes the lyrics… it has its tongue firmly [planted] in its cheek a lot of the time…” She elaborated: “I used to watch Tim in pubs when he was gigging to ten people and I was a huge fan of his comedy… I think its exciting when you see people who work hard and are talented make good.”
Audiences should not expect to see a carbon copy of either the book or film on the stage, but rather a show that is its own beast: a modern testament to a story that celebrates the cleverness and wit of a remarkable young girl, with occasional subtle nods to the popular film. This is not a play specifically for children or adults; it has something for all age groups. Fans of Roald Dahl and Tim Minchin alike should be satisfied.
Until October 25. Sydney Lyric Theatre, Pirrama Road, Pyrmont. $50-$150. Tickets & info: au.matildathemusical.com or ticketmaster.com.au