There is yet to be an adaptation of a Roald Dahl book that really understands the darkness at the heart of the author. The cruelty that winds and bends through his stories, and often blasts to the surface at intervals, is exactly what makes Dahl so alluring, so enduring, and yet no dramatist has ever truly come to terms with it. Various versions of the BFG, for example, have failed to nail either the unpleasantness of Sophie’s orphanage, or the brutality of the bullying giants. Gene Wilder’s iconic performance as Willy Wonka only has flashes of the derangement we see in the book. Wes Anderson’s superb stop-motion animation Fantastic Mr Fox never really expresses the claustrophobic awfulness of the Fox family’s siege at the hands of the murderous Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Even in Nicolas Roeg’s superior movie version of The Witches, complete with eye-boggling camera angles and the famous skin-peeling scene, cops-out with a happy ending that reportedly drove Dahl himself apoplectic.
So what of Matilda, perhaps one of Dahl’s most loved books, and one that most tightly resembles a full novel? Interestingly, it is most likely that Danny Devito’s movie version from 1996 gets closest to that cruel streak of Dahl’s. Devito is an actor and director who one must assume gets cruelty – it is a major part of his comedy after all. In Matilda he has no intention of sparing the potential younger audience members, and he gives us a fearsome Mrs Trunchbull in Pam Ferris, having his camera linger on her every sneer and bullying phrase. So it’s interesting to discover that Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s global hit stage musical version of Matilda goes for pantomime rather than darkness. This Matilda, in truth, has very little of either that Dahl cruelty or indeed the Dahl charm.
That’s not to say Matilda: The Musical is not a very enjoyable, high-energy, foot-stomping romp of a West End Show, but it feels about as much as a Roald Dahl experience as a summer stroll through Llandaff village – you know he’s been here because his name crops up frequently, but that’s about it. It’s unusual, as Minchin himself, who wrote the songs, has a dark wit a mile wide, and it was this facet of his creative personality that no doubt got him to re-imagine Dahl’s work in the first place.
As a West End show, Matilda pulls out all the stops. The first half an hour or so is breathless, with the songs rolled out as medleys. Minchin is a clever writer – sometimes a little too clever – and it isn’t always so easy to keep up with the whitewater rapids that passes for dialogue and the cavalcade of choreography. It is a dazzling experience, packed with memorable moments, but it is in the end a kid’s show that has taken the sweetness that is certainly in the source material but abandoned the acidity.
The most telling aspect of this is the decision to cast a man – in this instance Craige Els – in the role of terrifying headmistress, Agatha Trunchbull, thus giving the entire show its heavy lean toward the pantomimic lightness that ends up defining it. Within these parameters, the performances are strong and ever-so-precise. It is impossible not to marvel at the proficiency at the heart of Scarlett Cecil’s turn in the title role, and the “newts” – the chorus of Matilda’s classmates – are without fault. It is not just that these are children performing at an exceptionally high standard, but it’s that the show demands so much from them.
Matilda: The Musical is in many ways a very modern adaptation, all pop and fizz and moments at which to sit open-mouthed and dazzled. But apart from that it’s just another in a long line of Dahl dramatisations that don’t necessarily understand what makes Dahl so good.
Matilda: The Musical is on at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff until January 12th.