For those who grew up reading Roald Dahl’s wonderful books, a new version has an incredibly high bar to meet – not just replicating the literary quality of his novels, not just in bringing to life his wonderful characters, ideas, settings and plots in a suitable way, but also the incredible power of childhood memory. That wistful look back to those wonderful days of reading way past your bedtime, turning page after page, promising to stop at the end of the chapter but always somehow managing to overlook the transition – that is a high bar to try and reach, because as Dahl well knew, the imagination and wonder of a child far outweighs that of any adult.
What is so delightful, then, about Tim Minchin’s musical adaptation of ‘Matilda’ is, to put it bluntly, just how well he gets it. The musical completely understands that ‘Matilda’ is not just about the good people against the bad people – not about her and Miss Honey against the evil Miss Trunchbull – but in fact about the failure of all adults to govern the world of children, and the necessity for children to right the wrongs that adults can’t see or can’t admit to. So of course Miss Trunchbull is an authoritative headmaster, and of course the Wormwoods are grotesque, but Miss Honey is not much better – she might be nice, but she’s also weak, feeble and unwilling to act. Minchin gives her an entire song in which she attempts to persuade herself that what she calls ‘my house’, but is really a shed, is enough for her – that she doesn’t need any more than a table which is perfect for tea or a bed on which she can ‘dream [her] nights away’. Instead, as Matilda sings ‘sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty’.
I could write reams about the songs, the adaptation (it doesn’t just copy the book and add a piano backing), or the staging, but the absolute highlight of Minchin’s version of the show stems from that first paragraph of this blog – those high expectations we have stemming from the incredible power that is childhood, and our memories of those early days of joy and play. And that is the song called ‘When I Grow Up‘. The first time I saw the show, I was on the verge of bursting into floods of tears, and even watching the Royal Variety Performance version can easily make me well up. So, the big question is: why?
Ultimately, what makes the song so great is that it turns to the adults in the theatre and asks ‘What happened?’ What happened to that imaginative, joyful, happy child who wanted to play, watch cartoons, eat endless sweets? What happened to the child who thought that he or she would get to climb even taller trees as an adult, carry around those things that weigh you down as a kid, or be brave enough to fight the monsters hiding under your bed? As an adult listening to the lyrics, you get a curious sense of regret – that you left all that behind and ended up spending hours in front of a computer to earn money, rather than playing, climbing trees, eating sweets; you get a sense of lost naivety – of those nightmares where a creature jumped out from under your bed, of that assumption that the problems get easier as you get older, that you can lie in the sun and not get sunburnt; but most of all, you remember the freedom that only a child’s imagination can grant you, and just how far you’ve meandered from it. Why else is it staged with swings which the children push to their limits – longing to leave the ground behind and reach higher – towards adulthood, but towards escape, and freedom? Maybe you were tiny, maybe that swing only gave you as much freedom as the length of the rope holding it up, and maybe your adventures only stretched to the top of a tree, but it was wonderful! It was wonderful! By contrast, when Miss Honey walks on stage, she sits on one of the swings, her movement more indicative of an old woman in a rocking chair. Most significantly, she still seems to be clinging to the naive view that adulthood is what’s needed – that her problem is that she needs to grow up. Instead, Minchin and Matilda realise that children are the true agents for change in matters that affect them – which is why straight after Miss Honey’s wistful thinking – her paradoxical desire to grow-up, Matilda spurs into action: ‘Just because you find that life’s not fair, it doesn’t mean you just have to grin and bear it’. Ultimately Miss Honey is weak – Matilda, a child, is the agent for change.
By doing this – by making the song so strongly about the freedom and joy of childhood, Minchin is also able to draw a stark contrast with Miss Trunchbull’s authoritarian Crunchem Hall, with Matilda’s nightmarish home, but also with all adults. We failed. We grew up, we forgot what we, as kids, knew we were going to do, but worst of all we accepted it. Maybe we live in the ‘real world’ of work, tax and bills, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s not anywhere as wonderful as what we dreamed of. Maybe when we were kids we wanted to grow up, but only because it meant we could fulfil what we wanted to do as kids. Above I said that ‘Matilda’ is about how kids are needed to right the wrongs of adult control, and here they are – indirectly, musically, telling you: you did not live up to our standards. And we know it. That is why this song is a perfect representation of Dahl’s celebration of children and childhood, and this is why a good adaptation of any of his books is such a difficult feat to pull off for those who have the benchmark of ‘childhood memory’ to draw on – can you reach the imaginative standards of a child? Minchin successfully not only faithfully brings to life Dahl’s underlying philosophy, but does so in a way which directly translates it into one of the core songs of the musical. All we can do as grown-ups is look back on what we longed for, and ironically, feel a sudden longing for precisely what we had – childhood.
To those think I’m reading too much into this, I found an interview quote with Tim Minchin in the programme for the show:
“I think that whole song was, for me, about tugging at the heartstrings of the adults to rub in their faces how far they’ve strayed from what they thought they would be when they were grown-ups. It’s quite a light-hearted song, but the reason adults get teary about it is because of that lyric, ‘When I’m older I’m going to know everything’. But the grown-ups are thinking, ‘I thought that, too, and I don’t know anything.’
The second part – about adults tearing up at that lyric – illustrates how you can take the song one of two ways: either the children are naive about the real world of adults, or the adults failed to fulfil the imagination of their childhood selves. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that even if the first one has a sad reality to it, ‘Matilda’ is on the side of the children. As Matilda herself sings, ‘Even if you’re little you can do a lot, you mustn’t let a little thing like ‘little’ stop you.’