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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear