Matilda the Musical and memories of childhood

Matilda the Musical, Lyric Theatre, Sydney

I’M sorry. I make no apology for the following revelation because it’s relevant. I was the intellectual of the Kindergarten class at St Columba’s, Ballarat North. I could read before I started school and thus, when the teacher – not a sympathetic one, I fear – took us endlessly through a huge alphabet chart on the wall (A apple, B bat, C cat and so on) I thought I would go mad. I can still see it, and shall we say this was some small time ago, when we all sat in rows at wooden desks with inkwells. I also had a lazy eye and zero coordination. Being chosen last for rounders was a given, and in the foot races we were forced to take part in I always came last. Unless Helen Sherry was in my group, and then I came second last.

What balm, then, Matilda the Musical is for little girls and boys like me, and for me too these many decades later. Those memories are forever green, unfortunately.

Bella Thomas as Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

Bella Thomas as Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

Tim Minchin so gets that. Take one of his early songs in Matilda, School Song, in which the alphabet is trawled to build up to a climactic: “Just you wait for Phys Ed”. That not only gets Z done and dusted in sensational style, it speaks to the monumental terror so many of us felt when forced to get our heads out of a book and our puny bodies on to the sports field. The humiliation was intense and complete.

The staging of this song piles Pelion on Ossa (classical reference!) by having the senior students played by adults. Remember how big the big kids looked when you started school. It’s that, magnified. All this happens shortly after a rousing opening number in which Matilda’s youngsters boast of just how marvelous their parents’ think they are. They are in for a shock.

Minchin, Dennis Kelly (book), Peter Darling (choreography), Rob Howell (sets and costumes) and Matthew Warchus (original direction of this Royal Shakespeare Company production) create wonders from Roald Dahl’s story. Matilda is exhilarating fun while being very, very brainy. Books, language, courage, resilience and imagination are celebrated as weapons of rebellion against the philistine and the mean-spirited. There’s an inescapable darkness in Matilda but a beautiful spirit of optimism prevails. It’s magical and it has something to say to everyone.

Molly Barwich as Matilda with Elise McCann as Miss Honey. Photo: James Morgan

Molly Barwick as Matilda with Elise McCann as Miss Honey. Photo: James Morgan

Given the subject matter, Matilda the Musical has to rest its case on small shoulders. There are superb performances from James Millar (silken-voiced, despotic headmistress Miss Trunchbull), Elise McCann (divine Miss Honey) and Marika Aubrey and Daniel Frederiksen (Matilda’s ghastly parents, the Wormwoods). The kids are all a delight too, but Matilda has to be the shining centre.

There are four girls playing our heroine in rotation, obviously not five-year-olds but several years short of teenagehood. I have seen two of them, Molly Barwick (10) at a preview and Bella Thomas (11) at last week’s opening night. They were very different and both enchanting. I very much want to see Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin, obviously out of professional interest, and also because it means I get to see Matilda again.

Raise the roof

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, October 22

GLORY hallelujah! Miracle City has been resurrected. It is alive and it is well, if a little in need of fine-tuning.

An explanation for those not steeped in music-theatre lore: in 1996 Nick Enright and Max Lambert’s show had a short season at Sydney, Theatre Company and it was good. But for various reasons it wasn’t revived and soon acquired quasi-religious status. But to every thing there is a season and Miracle City has found a natural home at Hayes Theatre Co, with its 110 seats and committed music-theatre audience. The small, bare-bones space is perfect for Miracle City’s setting, a regional Tennessee television station from which the Truswell family conducts its evangelical Christian ministry and tries to raise money for an ill-considered theme park.

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Michael Hankin’s rudimentary set of a sparkly curtain, a few monitors and some backstage bits and bobs strikes exactly the right note. The Truswells have a long-standing ministry but they are nowhere near the league of the Reverend Millard Sizemore, a bully with a private jet, oily authority and vast sense of entitlement. Rick Truswell doesn’t lack for ambition, however, and has grandiose plans, advertised regularly during the family’s Sunday program. Naturally funds are required. From their unprepossessing studio the family intersperses its home-spun homilies and rousing songs with calls for donations that will enable the completion of the theme park they have called Miracle City. “First you pray, then you play,” say the ads, but before that can happen someone has to pay. Rick Truswell needs money, he needs it badly, and, as it transpires, will do anything to get it.

In real time – just under 90 minutes – the veneer of good cheer and good works shatters. Idolised men are shown not only to have feet of clay but to be viciously corrupt and a woman married at 16 finds the strength to be her own person. (The echoes of A Doll’s House are pleasing as the woman is played by Blazey Best, who recently starred in an updated version of Ibsen’s play for Belvoir.)

With their exercise of iron-clad patriarchial control, Rick Truswell (Mike McLeish) and his mentor Sizemore (Peter Kowitz) could be old-school Stalinists, except with way, way better music. Which is where Miracle City really nails it. Lambert and Enright’s songs are heaven, absolutely crucial to the show’s tightrope-walk between satire and seduction. There are up-tempo exhortations to raise the roof, share the load and to take up arms until the war is won, and there is a strong temptation to leap to one’s feet and join right in.

The country-and-gospel score hits bull’s-eyes again and again. Marika Aubrey, Hilary Cole, Esther Hannaford and Josie Lane are all in knockout vocal form as they deliver the effortless mix of shiny-eyed faith and glossy showbiz. Hannaford, who plays the troubled Bonnie-Mae, is magnificent in the show’s standout number I’ll Hold On, and Aubrey leads a storming Raise the Roof, but really everyone gets a strong vocal moment. Who knew Best (Lora-Lee Truswell) could sing like that? She’s a revelation, as is young Cameron Holmes as baby of the family Ricky-Bob. Keep him on your radar. Jason Kos as floor manager of the Truswells’ show rounds out this highly appealing cast.

The difficulty is in managing the shift from clean-living serenity to ugly reality in such a short time. Director Darren Yap has allowed McLeish and Kowitz, both charismatic, to become too obviously villainous and therefore less chilling than they might be. But to be fair, the piece probably needed a few more drafts to enrich overly emblematic characters. Rick Truswell has the usual reclamation story (he was a no-account wrong-doer until he met Lora-Lee when she was just a girl), Aubrey is the tough, astringent gal who can look after herself, Hannaford the woman with a painful past and Lane the adoring disciple who sees nothing. Cole has a little more to play with as Loretta, the teenager with a combustible mix of rebellion and naivety, and Best has the most complex path to tread as she touchingly shows the illusions of 20 years being stripped away in moments.

Best is an intensely sympathetic actor who negotiates the swift transition from subservience to vulnerability to defiance with appealing dignity, willing us to believe in a situation that doesn’t entirely ring true.

The dramaturgy isn’t perfect, but this is nevertheless an absorbing evening created by a lavishly talented group of people. Apart from designer Hankin, the composer leads a terrific five-piece band, Kelley Abbey choreographed, Roger Kirk did the costumes and Hugh Hamilton the lights. These are people normally seen on far bigger projects. But then this is Miracle City. Back at last.

Miracle City ends November 16

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on October 2