Fighting out of the Fringes: there’s not a Christmas show quite like Matilda
Fringe theatre, if it didn’t play second fiddle the other eleven months, very much plays second fiddle to the big family Christmas show at this time of year. Indeed, venues make their most significant profits from this show, making the difference between keeping theatres open and the more grim alternative. So, with fringe thin on the snow-covered and chilly ground I joined the masses of the midlands and beyond in heading to the RSC’s Christmas offering – a reworking of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.
The show represents a huge risk for the theatre, for even though Dahl is a perennial draw for those with little monsters/miracles in tow Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin are not. Kelly’s normal themes are dark dysfunctional relationships with overtones of sadism. Minchin is a zany Australian comic who many people are unlikely to book for their child’s sweet sixteenth. Maybe, that is, until now. For although their skirmish into the world of formulaic mega-bucks results in often simplistic writing and “you can usually spot the influences (Sondheim, Lloyd Webber et al)” [The Independent's Paul Taylor, see here for full review] in the music, it works. It works a treat. Be that for the open-mouthed awe-struck children or for a cynical, committed fringe goer like myself.
The reward takes a while in the coming, the first fifteen minutes are so fast-paced you can’t hear the words and it presents itself as any mega-budget musical might with all the depth of Tony Blair apologising for invading Iraq but it calms down and broadens out. Bertie Carvel is a stupendous and disgusting Miss Trunchbull and even Kelly’s dangerous arrogance in re-writing Dahl’s original ending doesn’t take the polish off a well-delivered second half. It’s a shame that Matthew Warchus felt it necessary to sexualise the children involved, directing hip-thrusting high-octane dancing occasionally (and I appreciate only very rarely) better suited to Chicago than a musical for children. But I seemed the only audience member concerned. The proof is in the giant chocolate pudding of a happy and energised audience who couldn’t stop clapping. They raced out into the foyer to scribble down their thoughts on the giant chalk boards and stare at the huge children’s drawings hung up everywhere on giant clothes pegs.
Sometimes it’s frustrating to have programmers put big bucks above smaller artists and leftfield artistic ideas. Economics often outdoes creativity but in this case the risk taken by the RSC has paid off in marrying both. I certainly don’t mind playing second fiddle (or probably in reality sixteenth or seventeenth fiddle but it’s Christmas so I’m being positive) to something like this, there’s a sparkly, wonderful, giggling tonne here I’m very happy to learn from.Fighting out of the Fringes, matilda
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