I took my mum to see Matilda last night (absolutely amazing. Again. Probably for always). While she disappointingly failed to call me a miracle, even at dinner beforehand when she had wine in hand, she did point out the incredibly familiar man on stage, who was introducing the new cast.
“It’s Nik!” she said.
Nik is Nik Ashton, the resident director of Matilda. Apparently. This came as a lovely surprise for us as until then I’d known Nik as the inspirational, Swiss Army knife director of Petersfield Youth Theatre, which I joined in my teens. Tamsin Egerton was in it when I was there, and Jamie Campbell Bower a few years later, I discovered last night while googling Nik to see what he’d been up to.
This was an exceptional group and I was bloody lucky to have it on my doorstep. Not least because each production got a ridiculous budget which meant we got tailor made costumes made by Hampshire’s numerous sewingly-gifted parents, but also incredible sets and tech, and a taste of the discipline required to make a massive production come off. I got to dress up as a gryphon, a showgirl and a large door (Alice in Wonderland), and in any number of pageant outfits (Marvin Hamlisch’s Smile, above. No, you’ll have to guess for yourself).
I got to have my own dancers – twice! – discover songs I never knew I loved, sing solo for the first time, develop stonking great crushes on people in the company, new and exotic music and chewing gum flavours, and feeling more confident about performing. Everyone from mini-tots to stage-hungry sixth formers got to be involved, with Nik and his sister Debbie doing all the (excellent) choreography and direction, and their mum Lyn Hill acting as general production manager.
Some people just have a gift at dealing with children, and that lot had it in spades. It was such a wonderful surprise seeing Nik onstage last night. If anyone can wrangle a company filled with children and bring out the very best in them, it’s him. As it was, the new cast was utterly sublime.
I saw Matilda years ago and liked it a lot, but didn’t love it. I really loved it last night. I’d completely forgotten some of the – not surprises, necessarily, but the out of the blue moments that instantly spin the show’s feeling and make you go “OH!” as though you’ve been socked in the gut by 28 pictures that prove dreams do come true (public crying warning). These are some of my favourites that I can think of at this present moment.
SPOILERS FOLLOW (but not very serious ones)
1) When I Grow Up (Matilda)
This comes out of nowhere and punches you all over with loveliness and heartbreak and enough nostalgia to power a thousand bloody Carry On and Fuck Off poster campaigns. Up til this point in act one everything has been incredibly funny and witty, and then – this. Swings appear out of the set, kids come down slides, the grown-up “kids” and actual kids swing out over the audience and there is this beautiful uplifting song that mixes major and minor key progressions with absolutely no regard for the fact you are sitting next to your mum who teases you mercilessly if you cry in public and can therefore not give in to all the feelings.
This is such a nostalgic song about what you thought being a grown-up would be like when you were a child. And that’s quite a killer too.
The other one of these in Matilda is The Cartwheel. No spoilers for this one, if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean (I realise there is little more annoying than that). I nearly dissolved into my own seat.
2) Joey grows up (War Horse)
I’ve seen this twice now as well because it’s quite simply amazing, if tremendously upsetting in places. I took my brother along to the press night at the National. We were both incredibly damp and piggy-eyed by the end of the show, and seriously reconsidering our careers to go into puppetry and/or building a giant puppet horse or at the very least, a small goose.
This moment, when Joe the foal is replaced by a huge full-grown Joey the horse leaping over him, makes shivers cascade down every part of my body just thinking about it. It’s the sort of moment where lumps appear in throats, tears spring to eyes and your entire self is overcome by wonderment. That’s theatre doing that. And really good storytelling.
3) The Mirror Blue Night, Spring Awakening
Another press night, another one I saw twice. Spring Awakening was one of the most incredible shows I’ve ever seen in London: I’d never seen anything like it. Again, so many brilliant songs, perfect set and a cast that felt as though they’d been carved out of the talent tree (Iwan Rheon’s turn as Moritz arguably earned him Misfits, and then Game of Thrones).
This song is so annoyingly short that I listened to it over and over again in the hope it would somehow get longer. The strings twine around the keys, the choreography is yearning and Aneurin Barnard’s Melchior nails it. Double hurray for the Spring Awakening fan who put clips from the original Lyric Hammersmith show on YouTube before the Novello transfer took all the soul out of it and squashed it flat.
4) The five chords before All I Ask Of You, Phantom of the Opera
NB – I’d urgently need to warn you about the terrible syrup that Steve Barton is wearing in this video. This is the first time I’ve seen him and it is (not how I imagined him in my head.)
Moving on. If I had my way, the double cassette of the original West End production would be the only recording of Phantom, and every production and concert would just mime along to Michael Crawford, Steve Barton and Sarah Brightman and lump it. I saw it a few years ago and it’s gone from glorious, erotic, moving epic to prancing Butlins holiday camp.
The Lord gets much necessary stick, but Phantom’s score is perfect. These five chords capture more mood than most people’s whole shows – you’ve just come out of the panic of Christine trying to persuade Raoul to leave before the Phantom kills him and Raoul going “He’s not real you silly girl, it’s all a myth albeit one with quite a few dead people showing up.” Silly Raoul.
Anyway, the first three are a classic organ-led (steady) trio of minor progression. “Oh God, we’re going to get another broken chandelier,” you think, “That was so loud. I don’t think my ears can take it again.” And then on the fourth, you get a neutral major. Everything might be alright. And then you get the pure major of the fifth and then you get the most beautiful ballad of the ENTIRE SHOW. Hello best pay off ever!
Well played, Lloyd Webber. Well played.
5) The Letter – Billy Elliot
I KNEW I’d forgotten one when I wrote this post – how could I forget The Letter? I really didn’t get on with the Billy Elliot musical at all; I wasn’t very keen on the music or the lyrics and pretty much anything that wasn’t just kids dancing really, really well (which happens more later one).
Then this! Out of the blue comes the most devastating bit of songwriting, simply sung in a pure soprano. This comes on EP on Sunday every now and again and I always end up with an enormous rainbow shaped mouth of sadness. This is almost the polar opposite to Matilda’s When I Grow Up – the main function of it is incredibly sad, a letter written by Billy’s dead mother and sung by his dancing teacher and the ghost of his mum oh my God, but also uplifting and joyful, and, like Matilda, a great reminder of the resilience of kids.
“She must have been a very special woman.” “Naw, she was just me mam.”