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.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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