Matilda the Musical

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This time last week, my friend Amy and I got up horribly early to trek into central London and queue for day tickets to see Matilda the Musical. While it would probably have been more advisable to spend my only day off having a rest, Matilda was definitely worth it. I went with quite high expectations – I think Tim Minchin is a bit of a genius and I’m also a fan of Peter Darling – but they were met and surpassed (and the tickets were only £5 for under-25s)!

And a week later, the songs are still in my head. Minchin’s writing is entertaining and very catchy – in particular ‘Naughty’, whose chorus reminds me of Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, with the same cheerful tones and tendency to get stuck in your head.

His irreverent and witty style fits perfectly with Roald Dahl’s story, and the lyrics manage to cover both thought-provoking and witty for the adults, and silly (but also clever) for the children. He has transferred his skill for writing brilliantly witty songs for himself and a piano on to a full-blown West End musical, and the result is fantastic. At points the songs are sentimental, but steer clear of cloying; lyrics such as Matilda’s

“Even if 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
Nothing will change.”

are delivered with such enthusiasm and gusto by the young actress that there is no time for them to become soppy.

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I was impressed (but as a fan of Billy Elliot not surprised!) by the consistent talent of the large young ensemble cast, as well as the obvious talents of Matilda. Matilda sings “Even if you’re little you can do a lot” and the acting, singing and dancing of the young cast certainly prove that’s true.

The show has immaculate staging, and choreography by Peter Darling – the swings in When I Grow Up are probably the best known, but what I found far more astonishing was the ‘School Song’. With the incorporation of 26 alphabet blocks into the song’s staging, to accompany the letters of the alphabet appearing in the lyrics, it’s a really clever idea, but must have been headache-inducing to bring to reality (and to repeat every night on stage).

It’s rare to find a musical, or any form of entertainment, ostensibly aimed at children but so satisfying for adults. Matilda has already been a storming success, but I’m sure it will continue to run for a long time to come.

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Twelfth Night at the Globe

When I saw Twelfth Night at the National Theatre last year, I didn’t really get it. I understood the plot, and there were some good performances, but it wasn’t funny. The play got laughs, but they sounded half-hearted. To me it seemed like people were laughing just to prove that they knew it was funny, rather than as a genuine response to the rather staid action. I thought maybe Twelfth Night just wasn’t for me; this was Shakespeare at the National, directed by Peter Hall and starring Simon Callow and Rebecca Hall, so it should have been amazing. But recently I thought that I’d give the play another try at the Globe, and I’m glad that I did.

Hall’s production was skilfully played out, but slightly dull; in contrast the Globe’s production really captured the spirit of the play. It featured an outstanding all-male ensemble cast; Samuel Barnett, Liam Brennan, Paul Chahidi, Johnny Flynn, Stephen Fry, James Garnon and Mark Rylance all gave great performances although Rylance as Olivia tended to steal the scene. The decision to have an all-male cast, a replication of the Globe’s production 10 years earlier (which featured many of this cast), gave an extra dimension to the idea of dissemblance and gender. Viola is now a man, dressed as a woman, disguised as a man – as she would have been in Shakespeare’s day.

The dialogue and physical comedy were honed to perfection, really bringing the play to life. The Globe was packed, and the atmosphere really added to the experience. It really demonstrates the importance of a production; last year I was ready to give up on Twelfth Night as a rather dull Shakespeare “comedy” but the Globe’s version has converted me; it’s laugh-out-loud funny and deserves the West End transfer it will receive this Autumn.

Not So Stiff Upper Lip

Having written a chapter of my dissertation on the cult of sensibility and its effects on attitudes to the theatre, watching the first part of Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain was rather like having an impromptu revision session. Hislop traces the changing attitude of the English towards their feelings – from the cult of sensibility that emphasised the nobility of emotion to an increasingly reserved ideal of stoicism and refined opinion. These changes affected contemporary tastes for a wide range of entertainments, from theatre to the rise in popularity of pleasure gardens. Hislop visits the excellent Johann Zoffany exhibition at the Royal Academy; Zoffany’s portraits demonstrate the increasing emotional involvement of eighteenth-century portraits.

The cult of sensibility and fine emotion allowed the public to demonstrate their morality and virtue. It was accepted that everybody was capable of emotion, but those higher in society cultivated their feelings, and there was an almost competitive element to the displays of emotion that the elites experienced in response to theatrical performances in a bid to assert their superiority and understanding of the play’s deep sentiment. These displays could be almost pantomimic, with ladies falling into hysterical outbursts that were as much about demonstrating their emotional capacity to others as about any deep personal response to the play.

The cult of sensibility dominated eighteenth-century society while it lasted, but it was fleeting, and it increasingly came to be replaced by the ideal of politeness. While it was still acceptable to show feeling in response to the theatre, moderation and manly composure became predominant. Excessive displays of emotion became more and more associated with femininity and a lack of control. Hislop looks at James Boswell’s diary as an example of a man attempting to balance the holding in of coarser feelings with the letting out of refined opinions. Boswell identified the need to put up a public façade to hide his emotions– yet I would say that sensibility had equally been about creating a public façade.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft urges women to stoicism, to fight against the ideas of ‘femininity’ that they have been taught. Women were thought to be enslaved to feeling and not rational – a tendency exacerbated by ‘feminine’ pastimes such as reading novels. As sensibility fell out of fashion emotional displays were increasingly felt to be a feminine weakness.

The move away from sensibility was catalysed by the fear of social breakdown that accompanied the onset of the French Revolution. This was perpetuated by Britain’s imperial expansion and the Industrial Revolution – both of these factors expanded Britain’s ambitions and created a new moral seriousness in the country. Zoffany’s work reflected this change, as he abandoned his old subjects in favour of depictions of the Revolution – his later work is hellish, showing the mob gone wild and the normal order of society turned on its head. Excessive emotion was becoming increasingly linked with radical politics in the public consciousness.

Until now I had never really considered the marked difference that exists between the sensibility of the eighteenth century and the stoicism and reserve of British imperial culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – another area that I studied in detail. Hislop identifies the lasting impacts of the French and Industrial Revolutions as well as British imperialism as creating the beginnings of the idea of the stiff upper lip that has come to define the British. The next episode of Hislop’s documentary promises to explore how the Victorians entrenched the stiff upper lip as a national characteristic.