Sugar and Spice, and Something Sinister
By BEN BRANTLEY
Published: January 31, 2012LONDON — Smells like pre-teen spirit at the Cambridge Theater, where a throng of irresistibly fed-up boys and girls are storming the barricades of adult oppression. “Revolting children” they call themselves in the rousing final number of the musical “Matilda,” the fattest, sassiest hit of the season here. And the words have special savor for these kids because they’ve been used before, in another way.
“Revolting children” is what their sadistic headmistress had been calling them. And now, led by a polysyllabic little girl with the gift of telekinesis, they’ve turned an insult into a battle cry. These newly armed, formerly downtrodden creatures have learned one of the first lessons of revolution: who owns the language has the power.
This dictum is one of the morals of “Matilda,” which is based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel. A Royal Shakespeare Company production, with a book by Dennis Kelly and songs by Tim Minchin, “Matilda” is a sweet and sharp-witted work of translation, which — like its story-spinning title character — turns dark and sodden anxieties into bright and buoyant fantasies.
And not just the anxieties of being a little kid who knows monsters are lurking under the bed. If you think about it (not that you will while you’re watching this show), “Matilda” addresses many of the national worries that dominate the daily news here: an enfeebled and ineffective education system, corrupt business practices, abuses of power, organized crime, the mind-rotting effects of bad television, the imperilment of public libraries and the popularity of those tacky dance competitions.Directed by Matthew Warchus (with such inventiveness that I forgive him for “Ghost: The Musical”), “Matilda” is hardly a sugar fest. It stays true to the tartness of Dahl, who reveled in the sinister and knew that children do too.