Only in a story written by Roald Dahl could a girl who tricks her father into dying his hair lime green and then superglues his hat to his head be viewed as a sympathetic character.
But this is the beauty of Dahl and his dark, sweet-yet-bitter style of storytelling. And this is the best part of Matilda, a play that plays homage to spirit of the book by Dahl—much more then the film by the same name did.
So, you have Matilda Wormwood, a young girl whose intelligence confounds and disgusts her parents—her father, a sleaze of a used car salesman constantly trying one-up and bamboozle some off stage Russians in a bad car deal and her mother, who seems to be focused solely on ballroom dancing. She also has an older brother who wears a sweatshirt throughout the play with the word “Genius” on it. But it’s quite clear he is anything but.
The five-year-old Matilda’s only escape is the library, where she weaves spectacular tales for the librarian (with a seemingly out of place Jamaican accent), but these are not happy stories. The stories become darker once Matilda starts school, leading the child to say at one point in the story “And then she died. And then things got worse!”
At school her class is full of children who have been told by their parents that they are perfectly perfect in every way taught by the plain and kind Miss Honey. But building is ruled by Ms. Trunchbull, a mean, child-hating, pigtail despising, former hammer-throwing Olympian with a penchant for torture.
What follows is a story of revenge, as told through the lens of a child. But it’s a message that is sometime scrambled by distraction.
Let’s start with the good:
The songs. Though rote in their design, the wordy and clever songs written by British stand-up and musician, Tim Minchin, sound as if they could have been written by Dahl himself.
All of the children. Matilda (the mesmerizingly good Jaime McLean) and eight other similar-aged actors, steal every scene they are in—as this play is really just a showcase of their talents, just as Dahl would have wanted it. Because Matilda is a story told through the lens of a child narrator, all adults—except Miss Honey—are written to be outrageous and cartoonish versions of grownups. And even with Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood playing infinitely unlikeable characters, none are more cartoonish than Trunchbull.
Part of this is because the role of the brut and stern woman whose personal motto is “Children are maggots” and who dresses like a nazi, is played by a man (Dan Chameroy).
This brings us to the bad.
Trunchbull is a child abuser and a murderer. But in this play, a lighthearted but dark romp, she is there for laughs, primarily about her body. Though Chameroy is fit—his muscular legs are evident underneath the costume—Trunchbull is fat, so her costume is fitted with shoulder pads and extra large pillows as breasts. As she unzips a hoodie during a scene that takes part during a physical education class, the crowd gasps in horror, anticipating what hides beneath. And none of the above body-shaming complaints even touch on transphobia—I supposed the producers of this play decided it was better to cast a male for laughs at the expense of “masculine” women rather than find one actual woman who wanted to be mocked for her body onstage in front of thousands—including kids. What a message to send children on the same day that Donald Trump rolled back protections for trans kids.
So I guess when you put it that way, of course a mischievous and precocious kid is the hero of the story, after all. What’s a little bright green hair in comparison?
Matilda plays at Eccles theater through Feb. 26. Tickets are available here.