Matilda the Musical (adapted by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin)

My family has a Christmas tradition of going to see a play or a musical in the West End; this year, we went to go and see the musical Matilda, a stage adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s classic. Now, along with probably every other bookworm, I loved the book of Matilda as a child: the main character is a little girl who loves books, and can move things with her eyes, so it was definitely appealing to a little girl who loved books and wished she could move things with her eyes. I also loved the 1996 film adaptation, maybe even as much as I loved the book. In our house it was on frequently, and I’m pretty sure we still have the VHS somewhere. It’s been years since I last watched the film though, so this is not a comparison of the two adaptations; these are simply some of my thoughts on the musical adaptation (which, just to be clear, I really enjoyed).

The biggest challenge facing any stage adaptation is how to convey information which could be divulged by the literary narrator in a book, or through a few well-timed shots in a film. Matilda faces this challenge within its very first song, as it attempts to adapt the narrator’s opening explanation of how parents think of their children to contrast with how Matilda’s parents think of her. Whilst it is a strong opening song, there were long parts within the song which seemed a little unnecessary. I mentioned in my comments on The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared that I am not a big fan of flashbacks as they often tell the audience things which could easily be shown through the present-day narrative. The sequence surrounding Matilda’s birth is a good example of this since its only real purpose is to set up the relationship between Matilda and her parents, an aspect of the narrative which is easily shown through their interactions in the present.

Miss Honey’s backstory, which takes three chapters of the novel, is much more cleverly handled, although it is let down by the way it is eventually tied into the main narrative. Matilda’s trips to the library in the book are simply used to show how clever she is and to explain how she had the opportunity to read so many books. However, the musical uses them to great effect as Matilda uses the time to tell Mrs Phelps, the librarian, an ongoing story which is beautifully eerie in its staging. I am almost ashamed to admit that it took me until the beginning of Act II to realise that the story she was telling was, in fact, the story of Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull, but once I had made the connection, it was clear that this was a very clever way of handling a huge challenge of this particular stage adaptation.

One of the things my sisters and I came out of the musical saying was that there was much less focus on the magic aspect of the story than we remembered there being. However, on rereading the book, I think that this is possibly a result of how much we watched the film as children since the first mention of magic in the novel is actually over 150 pages in. In actual fact, the musical is much closer to the book than the film probably is, with the incredible thing about Matilda being her intelligence and not her magic. That’s probably a better message for a narrative aimed at children. But I did miss the magic.

Most of the songs in the musical are not particularly memorable unless you know it well: the only one I could remember enough to sing at the end was Matilda’s song “Naughty”. I much preferred the songs the children are involved in rather than the Miss Honey/Miss Trunchball/Wormwoods themes, and the ensemble songs were all incredibly well staged. By far the best, and most ambitious song, was “School Song”, which prompted me to turn to my sister and whisper “that was so clever” when it finished: everything about it, from the lyrics and the use of the alphabet, to the staging and lighting, was so well thought through that it made for a really great piece of theatre.

All in all, Matilda the Musical was a fun day in the West End. I can certainly see why it is so popular with children and families: the creators have put a lot of hard work into making sure that every aspect of the musical is relatable to children. However, there was a lot for the adults to enjoy too, especially for those who know the story. From an adaptation standpoint it was very clever, despite its struggle with telling rather than showing, so those who love the book should find lots to enjoy here. It was definitely worth going to see.

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