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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times