Miracle on Earlham Street

The RSC's Matilda the Musical is an unalloyed triumph.

Sometimes - just sometimes - the theatre gods smile kindly on our creaking enterprises and bestow abundant and miraculous gifts. The RSC's Matilda The Musical at the Cambridge Theatre in the West End is the latest to be singled out for such godly favour, which seems terribly unfair on all the other sublunary shows. Really, it's a greedy embarrassment of theatrical riches.

Directed by Matthew Warchus - may his tribe increase - Matilda suggests to us with wit and warmth exactly what little girls are made of. Easy on the sugar, generous on the spice and with a spot of the naughty for good measure.

The musical for "children under 90" had me well before hello. Rob Howell's design and Hugh Vanstone's lighting prime the snare before a line is said or a song is sung. The stage is an enchanted Aladdin's cave, with letters and words for treasure. Vintage alphabet blocks and scrabble tiles splatter the proscenium, and books plaster the walls.

Writer Dennis Kelly - may the wind be always at his back - pushes Roald Dahl's twisted fable, of the miracle miss with a Dickens habit and a poltergeist streak, into compelling theatrical form. Matilda's magical thinking literally makes her stories real, to borrow Blackberry's rotten strapline. Her dreamy tales, of the escapologist and the acrobat "burning through the air with dynamite in her hair," are realised with achingly beautiful self-referential strokes.

Matilda Wormwood is born into a book-free wilderness, to parents who never wanted her. It's chez Wormood that the show makes one of its detours from orchestrated vaudeville and into panto, but by this point you won't care. Paul Kaye makes a chavvy, spivvy paterfamilias; his wife (Josie Walker) a brassy ballroom wannabe. It's books versus looks in their household. There's just a Twist of Dickensian snobbery as Matilda and her expensive vowels quote A Tale of Two Cities to her family, who are parked in front of the telly surrounded by naff emblems of bad taste (flying ducks on the wall; souvenir flamenco doll). And there's a Dahl-like, gleeful contempt for the Tee-Vee, as the Wormwood menfolk perform their song in front of the Test Card.

Appropriately for Dahl's bright child's-eye perspective, the children are at least the equal of the adults on stage. The bookish Matilda could easily have been a precious nightmare of child-star awfulness, but the elfin Eleanor Worthington Cox has a light and sure touch. As for her cohorts at Crunchem Hall School, they rip it up onstage with Peter Darling's sparkling choreography. With a sharply timed and crisp physicality, these kids are more than all right. Jake Bailey as Bruce Bogtrotter, making like a rock god in the closing anthem "Revolting Children," blazes still in the mind.
The jaunty, catchy songs of Tim Minchin - may he always walk in sunshine - zip along, lyrical and satirical; jazz inflections here, a Latin swing there. The School Song is just one example of the music and design meshing together as the cast scramble over illuminated letters during Minchin's topsy turvy alphabet song, in which "D" is for tragedy and "F" is for effort.

Which brings us to the crazed headmistress of Crunchem Hall and former Olympic Hammer Throwing Champion, Miss Trunchbull. (Motto: "To teach the child we must first break the child.") We first see "her" holed up in her steampunk study, glued to a bank of surveillance screens. Bertie Carvel is a towering, upholstered presence, with a great Continental shelf of a bosom. The legs are all Broadway athleticism, the hands tremble with we know not what repression, but the torso is locked in a rigor of rage. He mows down children when he moves, and pings them about the stage, and at one point into space. There is a fabulous mismatch in height and power between him and the children, especially the minutely cute Eric (Ted Wilson). Carvel rarely lets Trunchbull's voice rise above a silken whine, and his pronunciation of tissue (tiss-you) will make you shiver.
Dahl lapped up Norwegian tales of sprites and trolls at his mother's knee He was also an assiduous and elaborate prankster. This show that fizzes like sherbet is the perfect salute both to the man who loved stories, and the boy who put the dead mouse in the jar of gobstoppers.
Take your child, or borrow someone else's, but don't miss the miracle on Earlham Street.

DON HOOPER/ALAMY
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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage