WHEN I was a kid, I was a sensitive sort; I liked stories that featured nice people sorting out manageable problems, and frequently had to be carried screaming out of the children’s films of the age, whenever things got too scary or dark.
Matilda The Musical, Playhouse, Edinburgh ****
So it’s just as well, perhaps, that I didn’t grow up in the age of Roald Dahl, an adored children’s writer whose fictional world is full of malign and stupid adults conspiring to make children’s lives a misery; and nowhere more so than in the much-loved Matilda (1988), which features a little girl with a huge brain brutally mistreated not only by her loud and ghastly parents – her Dad is a wide-boy criminal car salesman, her Mum a vain dimwit obsessed with her Latin dance tutor – but also by her terrible headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, a fascist-gym-teacher type whose only mission is to torture children, and to deny them any glimpse of education or enlightenment.
In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s smash-hit 2010 stage version, though – directed by Matthew Warchus with script by Dennis Kelly, songs by Tim Minchin, design by Rob Howell and superb choreography by Peter Darling – all this is is brought to life with such vivid technicolor verve that, in the style of Dahl himself, the story is never less than hugely entertaining, even at the inordinate length of two and three quarter hours.
Within the first 15 minutes or so, the situation of Matilda’s perpetual persecution at the hands of the adult world is set up; and then for a couple of hours, we mostly simply experience different aspects of that oppression, until – towards the end – the story finally moves on again.
If that plot-structure is slightly wearing to grown-ups like me, though, it’s clear that for the children in the audience, it’s pretty well perfect. They can’t get enough of Elliot Harper’s magnificently evil Miss Trunchbull, and her two long, spectacular production numbers, The Hammer and The Smell of Rebellion. They laugh outrageously at Rebecca Thornhil and Sebastien Torka as Matilda’s ghastly parents. They love Matilda’s rebellious band of school friends; and above all, they adore Matilda, played, on Thursday night, by a clever, beautiful, brave and irresistible Scarlett Cecil. In the end, Matilda emerges as a passionately idealistic story about how a little kid who loves books and knowledge can hang on to ideas about what’s good and right, even in a world gone drastically wrong; and that message is finally delivered with such grace, theatricality and power that the audience rises as one, to give it – and this brilliant RSC company – the ovation they richly deserve.
Until 27 April