DIRECT FROM LONDON
Matilda The Musical, at the Cambridge Theatre
The Play that Goes Wrong, at the Duchess Theatre
The Book of Mormon, at the Prince of Wales Theatre
By Beverly Friend, Member of American Theater Critics Association
Out of 41 possible plays being performed in this ‘’theater capital’’ of the world, we were limited only to three during our brief stay. What to choose?
Interestingly, we had missed these three in their Chicago performances so now was the opportunity to make up for lost time.
Matilda, The Musical was first, touted in the London reviews as second in brilliance only to The Book of Mormon (more on that later). For a change of pace, the next night we saw The Play that Goes Wrong, an unexpected treat as one of the reasons for the choice was that it was one of only a few theaters open on a Sunday evening. Last, was what we hoped would climax our theatre experience and provide a comparison with Matilda; we went to see the highly touted Book of Mormon.
Surprise: London theaters do not offer Playbills. Instead, if the audience wants any information about the play – location, time, list of characters, actor information, an intermission and its duration – they must purchase a program ranging in price from £3 to £6 ($3.81 to $7.61). Worth buying, but a bit daunting, but there is also considerable additional information including background material on the play and the theaters themselves.
Matilda, based on the famous Roald Dahl story with book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, is a delightful tale moving from a seemingly Cinderella-like situation to succeed in forging her own path.
While children are a miracle – as the play’s opening song attests – this one particular child is not. Or, at least, her dysfunctional parents cannot accept her as such. To her dazzling, blonde, dance-enthusiast mother, Mrs. Wormwood (Marianne Benedict) and her smarmy, shady, pompadour sporting father Michael Wormwood (Rob Compton), Matilda (Zoe Simon) is not a blessing but a curse.
When she enters first grade, eager to expand on her already considerable reading ability, she is equally denigrated by the horrible school principal, Miss Trunchbull (Hayden Tee), until rescued by kind, empathetic teacher, Miss Honey (Gina Beck). In fact, the two rescue each other.
The roles are so demanding that the complete cast of children rotates among three groups and the theater advertises a continual search for new boys and girls – and has auditioning information on their website.
Simon is charismatic in the lead role in this brilliant cast of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her performance is so captivating that at the final, triumphal moment, as she walks downstage, radiant, the audience’s eyes fill with tears (ours included).
The stage setting – mile-high bookcases, puzzle pieces that join and part between scenes, swings hanging from the ceiling, desks rising from the floor – is brilliant as is the choreography. Words cannot do them justice. If this is second to the Book of Mormon, we cannot wait!
In 2012, Matilda won seven Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical—at the time, the most such awards ever won by a single show. As of 2017. Matilda held the record for most Olivier awards won by a musical, tying with Hamilton in 2018. At the 2013 Tony Awards, the show won five awards, including the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical.
Ironically, while we saw “Matilda” in London, it was playing at the Drury Lane in Oakbrook. When it returns to our fair city, as it surely must, we will go again!
**THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG**
While I still think Noises Off is the funniest play ever, the London Production of The Play That Goes Wrong runs a close second. Here is the story of an amateur drama company, the fictitious Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society putting on The Murder at Haversham Manor. Right from the beginning of this Agatha Christie inspired farce– even before the play’s opening lines –the cast is furiously searching the audience for a lost dog (perhaps under one of the seats). Thus, the fun begins in this madcap comedy written by Henry Lewis, and Henry Shields of the aptly named Mischief Theater Company.
Everything that could go wrong, does. A door that cannot stay shut and continually sways open, suddenly cannot be opened. Pictures fall from the walls, planks rise from the floorboards, and the entire set is in jeopardy. Our theory on how the company achieved multiple calamities is that offstage magnets might have been turned off and on to affect falling objects. Whatever the causation, it was all hilarious. The actors are more than a match for the visual, slapstick humor as they misplace props, forget lines, mispronounce words, and even repeat an entire dialog interchange several times. They are a study in fine timing. Special Kudos to Bobby Hurston, who at moments when he felt most triumphant in his role, would turn to the audience with the goofiest smile on his face, to share his delight.
**THE BOOK OF MORMON**
At last – the play by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, which we had been awaiting with such anticipation….
Perhaps we expected too much in this story of two young Mormon missionaries – Elders Price and Cunningham (played by Don Simpson and Tom Xander) who set out to convert African natives in Uganda. But, after all, it had won humongous awards including nine Tonies. What could be criticized?
It is a simple story. Handsome, narcissistic Elder Price, and his Sancho Panza-like sidekick, the overweight, bumbling Elder Cunningham, set out to change the world. If Baptism is equated with salvation, Price fails, and Cunningham succeeds. The success however comes with a price when Cunningham distorts the Bible to meet what he sees are primitive, barbaric African tastes. For example – because the African males believe that raping a virgin will cure their AIDS, they rape babies. Cunningham finds biblical sources to suggest they switch to raping frogs. Funny, eh? They become true – or untrue believers – and become baptized. This is the greatest triumph for the Mormon Church in Uganda.
The humor continues in this puerile, scatological vein with such vivid images as the recurring line,” I have maggots in my scrotum.” This may be minimally funny if at all. the first time and becomes continually less so. Then there is female circumcision — always a great comedic subject.
So, why is the play so very successful. Yes, there are some good song and dances. The scene where the Africans sing and dance their Biblical interpretation is vivid, and the concluding song is a blockbuster. But that is just not enough. I am amazed that at least two groups of people were not offended: Mormons and Ugandans. We were.
Conclusion: Matilda is the best Musical in London, offering a better, more talented cast than The Book of Mormon, characters with greater interest and appeal and an upbeat, cathartic ending.