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.

AKG-IMAGES
Show Hide image

High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times