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Blunder into the unknown

April 25, 2012

To my left, there’s a plate of buttered crumpets and a TARDIS mug (sadly not bigger on the inside) filled to the brim with Earl Grey. The washing machine is taking care of the backpack that was drowned in latte when I tripped over my own feet in the middle of the St Pancras Costa Coffee yesterday. My head is filled with spectacular new memories of wandering around London, picnicking in the rain under an umbrella, cooing over all the pretty things in museums, tweeing about in Kew Gardens, cupcakes for breakfast and éclairs for lunch, and having more great food and drinks with friends I hadn’t seen in ages than I could list here. The stereo, meanwhile, is playing a soundtrack that’s been on repeat ever since I returned from London last night: Matilda.

On Saturday morning, my friend and I got up earlier than is decent for holidaymakers to try to score some front row tickets for Wicked.  It’s no secret that my love for Wicked runs deep, so it should be no surprise that I wouldn’t mind seeing it a fifth time. Despite our ungodly early start, however, there was already quite a sizable queue in front of us, so we decided to wander over to the Cambridge theater, home of the relatively new Matilda (based on the book my Roald Dahl). Here the queue was even longer, but we took a leap of faith despite not knowing anything about the show other than that it won a record-breaking number of Olivier awards the previous week and that the songs and lyrics are by Tim Minchin. This last tidbit of information meant nothing to me but thoroughly confused my friend, who – like pretty much everyone else – mainly knows him for his in-your-face comedy and not entirely family-friendly songs. Matilda, meanwhile, is rated ages 6 and up, which seems quite a deviation from the rest of his oeuvre. Nothing is further from the truth, however, because Matilda has a lot of sass and naughty jokes and adult puns, if the grown-up knows where to look.

Minchin said that he wrote Matilda to appeal both to children and adults across the board, as something he would like to watch together with his own children, and he succeeded to achieve this in a spectacular way. When the box office opened at 10, most people were turned away disappointed with the message that there were “hardly any tickets left.” In a stroke of desperate brilliance, my friend and I still went up to the window and asked “are you sure there are no more tickets,” in reply to which we were told that no, there were two more – in a private box. The tickets exceeded our budget by 12 pounds, an excess which was easily balanced out by a cheap dinner, so we took the plunge and splurged on the box (from which part of the cast would sing one of the numbers).

From the opening number, in which a bunch of special snowflakes sang “my mummy says I’m a miracle, my daddy says I’m his special little guy,” we were entranced. We laughed at the clever lyrics that work for both children and adults, sat in awe when Trunchbull grabbed a little girl by her pigtails, swung her around on the stage, then threw her across the theater (not really, of course, but it looked plenty real for the theater), teared up during “When I Grow Up” and “My House,” cheered and whooped and hollered in response to the spectacular performances by both the adult and ridiculously talented child cast and left two perfectly enchanted and content ladies.

The show was true to that message that Dahl often incorporated in his books, namely that sometimes grown-ups are completely rotten human beings but that children not only have the right to revolt against their bad behavior, but that it is completely okay for kids to do so and to do so in their own, childish way. Before she pours her mother’s hair dye into her father’s bottle of hair tonic, Matilda sings about the show’s recurring theme:

‘Cause if you’re little, you can do a lot, you
Mustn’t let a little thing like ‘little’ stop you.
If you sit around and let them get on top, you
Won’t change a thing.
Just because you find that life’s not fair, it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it,
You might as well be saying you think that it’s OK.
And that’s not right.
And if it’s not right, you have to put it right.

But nobody else is gonna put it right for me.
Nobody but me is gonna change my story.
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.

But the number that will stick with me the most is probably the opening number of the second act: “When I Grow Up.” The children, who are now thoroughly cowed by their sadistic head mistress, sit on swings and sail across the stage and the first rows of the audience while fantasizing what their lives must be like when they’re adults. While watching it, you cannot help but recognize that the children in the audience must be in full agreement with these visions of the future, which include being big enough to climb every tree, eating sweets on the way to work, and staying up late before getting up at dawn to watch cartoons until your eyes go square – and that is how it should be. Meanwhile, as one of those fully-grown individuals the kids want to be, you also can’t help to go misty-eyed over those fantasies that have a double meaning:

When I grow up…
I will be strong enough to carry all
The heavy things you have to haul
Around with you when you’re a grown up.

And
When I grow up…
I will be brave enough to fight the creatures
That you have to fight beneath the bed
Each night to be a grown up.

This song is reprised at the end of the show, when we’re left with the same bittersweet feeling that Dahl’s book leaves adult readers with: Matilda, after coming to a heartbreaking understanding with her abusive father in the form of a handshake, goes to live with Miss Honey, who is now head mistress. She managed to change her story, just like she’d hoped, but we know that this is the fantasy outcome to a horrible situation in which thousands of children live their daily lives. We also know that changing one’s story in general is not as easy as resolving to do so. That shouldn’t stop you from trying, though, and it is in that message where you can see some family resemblance between Matilda and her mother, who at one point sings “No one’s gonna listen if you don’t shout. No one’s gonna care if you don’t care.” Of course her solution to going unnoticed and without power is to “go and put some highlights in your hair,” which perhaps isn’t the most constructive idea, but she is also aware that sometimes you need to (metaphorically) punch your environment in the face.

And on that note, I will go and do just that.

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