From a raft of drab, superficial, vaguely entertaining major commercial musicals emerges a sharp, intelligent winner. Matilda the Musical has opened in Sydney, and the Greases and Rocky Horrors of the Sydney circuit should be on alert: audiences have a taste for cerebral wit and generous heart on the big stages now, and they’re going to want more of it.
From Roald Dahl’s spiky-sweet book for children, Matilda centres on tiny five year old genius Matilda Wormwood (played on opening night by the remarkable Bella Thomas; the role is shared by four girls). She lives in a society full of parents who lavish praise on their decidedly average children, but her own parents think she, singlehandedly, makes a “good case for population control.” Her habit of reading – clearly a sign of genius – is the most irksome thing they’ve ever experienced, and they lavish praise on their son Michael (Daniel Raso), who doesn’t even tear his eyes away from the television when he’s moving set pieces during scene transitions.
Oh, those parents. Mr. Wormwood (Daniel Frederiksen), a slimy conman of the used car salesman trope, is as grotesque as one might remember from a childhood with the book never too far from arms’ reach; Frederiksen is a Quentin Blake illustration writ large, crooning with too much pride that all he knows he’s learned from “telly.” The more modern, recognisable cringe in Harry might be every adult who tells you, self-importantly, that they ‘don’t read.’
Mrs. Wormwood (Marika Aubrey, perfectly cast) is cruelly dismissive of her daughter. She doesn’t want to hear her stories; she wants to dance with “part-Italian” Rudolpho (Travis Khan). Her big number, “Loud,” is delightfully grating, and Aubrey’s withering delivery to miss Honey on the line “I look nice; you don’t,” is a particular winner.
But this is Matilda’s story, and she finds solace from her family at the library with Mrs Phelps the librarian (Cle Morgan), who listens to all of Matilda’s stories and encourages her cleverness and imagination. Every time she sees Matilda, she asks if her parents are so proud of her; Matilda hedges her answers and leaves. As funny as this musical is, and it is always funny, it never pretends that Matilda isn’t suffering and deeply hurt – this is largely thanks to Dennis Kelly’s book and Tim Minchin’s lyrics, but Matthew Warchus’ clear-eyed, mostly-skyped-in direction plays a large role in this too: he keeps the twisted, sad soul of the story in the fore, so that it can be slowly, gratifyingly healed.
And Matilda puts that hurt into her stories, weaving a fantastical tale of an Acrobat and an Escapologist that enraptures Mrs Phelps. At first it seems to be inspired by things around her, and that alone – lines are lifted from things her parents, her teacher Miss Honey (Elise McCann), and her terrifying headmistress Miss Trunchbull (James Millar) have said to her or around her – creating a story of a couple united in nothing but love, a father who loves his child, whose only failing is his overarching kindness. When Matilda’s father rips up one of her library books during one his tirades, she brings the Escapologist (Glenn Hill) to life in her room, taking comfort in his fictional care.
This story-within-a-story doesn’t always fit perfectly within the rest of the show, but it felt more aligned in the Lyric with the Australian cast than when I saw the show on Broadway two years ago; Matilda’s story takes on its own mystical quality, uniting Matilda and Miss Honey in a way that may not be necessary, but is still lovely.
Miss Honey (Elise McCann, finally in a leading role in a major musical and bound to be a star) is gorgeously warm. She too has suffered, beaten and forgotten about and billed for her childhood care. She has escaped to a shed where she lives with very little, and at first Matilda’s young eyes don’t see the shed for the liberation it provides, lit by a “small, stubborn fire,” but in “My House,” the show’s most touching ballad, Miss Honey explains it to the bright young girl. Miss Honey has found her own life, however small, in her little shed, teaching little children to read and spell and to compassionately live in the world.
It’s her kindness that gives Miss Honey’s students the courage to stand up to the headmistress. Miss Trunchbull towers over the children and Miss Honey even when she’s offstage; Minchin’s ominous music that marks her arrival is deviously evil. They are squibs, worms, maggots, she says. She tortures them in various gruesome ways, but these five year olds aren’t going to take it anymore.
When they erupt into “Revolting Children,” one of the greatest I’m-taking-a-stand songs in musical theatre since at least anything in Les Mis, it’s the most giddy, exciting moment of the night. Peter Darling’s choreography, executed by resident choreographer Brendan Yeates, creates triumphant chaos as Bruce (played on opening night by Ethan Puse) leads his classroom in a true exaltation of both meanings of the word “revolting.”
All the songs follow in this vein, with rapid and smart lyrics that are created in a pleasing British-Australian tone: clipped and unapologetically brilliant. They ring out as special, interesting, and rewarding for the ear: there is nothing lazy about these songs, and these songs are joyous, complex, and refereshing.
The casting of James Millar as Miss Trunchbull tugs some quietly sweet heartstrings. Like Matilda’s composer/lyricist Tim Minchin, Millar writes musicals; they have both created small shows in small Australian theatres, they have both danced and sung and acted their way across multiple stages; they both write with compelling humanity and disarming charm. It feels like artists supporting artists, and it feels like the best man for the job on many levels, and he delivers a thoroughly layered performance.
Millar, McCann, Aubrey, and Ferderiksen are not household names. They are actors who have worked phenomenally hard on developing careers on a mix of small and large stages, getting noticed, slowly, for their skills. It’s more than time that they all have bigger, meatier roles, and it’s to the audience’s benefit that we have these real actor’s actors on stage: their larger-than-life characters never get too out of hand, never trade the darkness of the show for cheap laughs. They are sensitive performers, even when playing brash or relentless, and the show is all the better for it.
Matilda and her classmates are so small, and on the Lyric stage, beautifully masked and set (by Rob Howell) to reign in its oversized glare for something more intimate, she feels tiny but totally self-possessed. She might have to stand on a stack of books to command the stage in “Quiet” but all eyes on her, on Bruce and Lavender (Shanice Lim) and little Amanda Thripp (Paris Naumovski). Backed by older kids played by an adult ensemble, it’s so easy to empathise with these children, old or young, and to feel their fear in the face of new experiences away from the safety of their parents.
But it’s “When I Grow Up,” the wistful, bittersweet number early in Act II, that best captures the spirit of the show. While the cast soars above audience heads on swings and sing about the freedoms they’re going to have when they’re a grown up – they will be “strong enough to carry all the things you have to haul around with you when you’re a grown up” – there’s a poignant resonance for adults, who beyond the mysteries of briefcases and handbags have to carry their own issues, constantly. And when Miss Honey joins the song, and offers the hope that when she’s more grown up she’ll be able to fight her monsters, it’s a beautifully, honestly sad moment that catches you in the throat.
This is a show that captures the sensation of wonder, a feeling that’s harder to come across as an adult, and presents it to us as something of a panacea; life is difficult, says Matilda the Musical; here, take this, and feel replenished. It’s an exceptional show.