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Young actresses Georgia Taplin, Bella Thomas, Sasha Rose and Molly Barwick share the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Matilda The Musical. David Moir/AAP

Marvellous Matilda: the child on stage

Currently on stage in Sydney is Matilda The Musical, a smash hit based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel with lyrics and songs by Australia’s own Tim Minchin.

Workshopped by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010 and performed in the West End and Broadway, Matilda the Musical is the latest of a number of stage shows focusing on idealised or talented children.

Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin with the four Matildas. James Morgan/AAP

Along with stage musicals such as Lionel Bart’s Oliver! during the 1960s and Billy Eliot, produced by Lee Hall and Elton John in 2005, Matilda is the story of a misunderstood child overcoming adversity to achieve her dreams.

The original Romantic child

All of these shows (and many others) focus on the child protagonist, who is simultaneously the object of pity and admiration.

English Romantic poet William Wordsworth. Project Gutenberg/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The idealisation of childhood goes back at least to the Romantics. Children, poet William Wordsworth wrote in 1804, have traces of heaven in them, “trailing clouds of glory” until the “shades of the prison house” of human (adult) life close in on them.

This very idealisation goes hand in hand with the increased concern for the rights of the child across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Storytellers trade on our post-Romantic assumptions, using child characters as vehicles for important messages. In Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1837), the orphaned Oliver sees the corruption of nineteenth-century London. Roald Dahl’s Matilda satirises bad families and bad education.

A moral message delivered from the lips of an innocent is a sure-fire way to strike to the heart of adult readers. We’re ready to believe that children have a pure, simple, or innocent access to the truth: what Jacqueline Rose calls a “privileged experience and sensitivity” that enables us to escape momentarily from the “cultural decay” of everyday life. They also reinforce values we agree are important: through Matilda, Dahl and the makers of the musical emphasise the value of literacy and culture.

Child characters are often idealised in order to represent particular values. Matilda reminds us of the power of reading and literacy, reading Dostoevsky in the original Russian at the age of five; Billy of the powers of art and dance; and Oliver of the power of kindness to soften even the hardest of hearts.

Oliver Twist and Mr Bumble, by C.E. Brock. Sotheby's/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

But we also pity these children for their circumstances. Oliver is an innocent orphan cast adrift among the thieves and villains of nineteenth-century London. Billy Elliot is a sensitive dancer in the hardscrabble streets of Manchester during the miners’ strike of 1984-1985.

And Matilda’s foolish parents ignore and dismiss her genius.

We also admire them because of the idealised version of childhood they represent. Oliver’s sweet innocence casts light into the dark corners of nineteenth-century London. Billy’s talent and perseverance show that hard work and genius pay off.

Matilda’s genius and willingness to be a “little bit naughty” mean that she extracts herself and the gentle teacher Miss Honey from the clutches of foolish and venal authority figures such as her parents and wicked headmistress Agatha Trunchbull.

Performing childhood

Who better to perform these idealised children than an idealised child?

Matildas are chosen, in the words of director Matthew Warchus, to deliver the “golden emotion that you get for free” with child performers.

The four Matildas in rehearsal with Tim Minchin. Dean Lewins/AAP

On the one hand we have stories of ideal children who achieve the world by their innocence, imagination, and kindness. On the other, they are performed by driven young actors who achieve nightly stardom by their talent and hard work.

For Dickens, the child who performs childishness on stage is an aberration: the ability to perform innocence undermines real innocence.

His phrase for child actors – “the Infant Phenomenon” – describes the eight year old Ninetta Crummles, a character from Nicholas Nickleby (1838). This child has a “comparatively aged countenance” having “been precisely the same age […] for five good years.” Stunted by late night performances and imbibing “an unlimited allowance of gin-and-water from infancy, to prevent her growing tall”, Ninetta Crummles symbolises the ironies of the performance of childhood, and the perils of precociousness.

These days, labour laws and equity rules prevent child actors from performing nightly. Our Matildas are hardly dosed on gin-and-water to prevent their growth, though it is true that once they reach the height of 4’5" they are no longer considered able to play a child of five (even a genius five-year-old) convincingly.

The spectre of child labour, our awareness of the adult control behind the child performance, and our suspicions that child actors are unnaturally precocious, are not entirely explained away by the children’s undeniable talent.

The Australian Billy Elliotts in 2007: Rhys Kosakowski, Lochlan Denholm, Nick Twiney and Rarmian Newton. James Morgan/AAP

Shows like Matilda the Musical and Billy Elliot emphasise the training and support given to the children involved. If we prefer, we can view such stage productions as academies rather than mega-bucks showbiz operations.

Nevertheless, children’s theatre (just like children’s media and literature) is big business. It’s a business largely conducted by adults, and the child is hired to perform their visions of what childhood means. In the case of Matilda the Musical, that vision means a combination of innocence, talent, and can-do capability.

Childhood dreams

In the end, it’s the child we’re looking at: the stories of Matilda, Billy, and Oliver, and the talents of the children who play them.

And in this regard, Matilda the Musical is an especially clever show: aware of the ironies of adult perceptions of childhood. Minchin’s lyrics trade on the ironic duality of the adult-child view.

A scene from Matilda at the Sydney Lyric Theatre, 2015. Dean Lewins/AAP

The song When I Grow Up offers an bittersweet view of childhood dreams about adult freedoms (and responsibilities):

When I grow up

I will eat sweets every day

On the way to work

And I will go to bed late every night.

There’s also an irony in Sometimes you Have to be a Little Bit Naughty. Matilda sings about the perils of obedience to the status quo and plans to “put it right” where she sees injustice.

Matilda rejects her wicked headmistress’s commands to “always keep your feet inside the line”, and fights for justice. Here is the new ideal: a child who’s not merely a Romantic innocent, but an activist, engaged in the business of living rather than merely waiting helplessly to grow up.

Director Matthew Warchus comments that, in choosing his Matildas, he was looking for “the kind of personality that you don’t feel pity for”:

Matilda’s got to make you feel that she could look after you.

The child actors who play Matilda, then, aren’t performing innocence, but confidence and capability.

Matilda: the new Romantic child

Why do we want Matilda to look after us?

For Wordsworth, “the child is father of the man”. This means in part that the groundwork for our later adult lives is laid during childhood.

A scene from Matilda at the Sydney Lyric Theatre, 2015. James Morgan/AAP

Instead of wanting Matilda to take us back to a place of nostalgia for the purity and innocence of the child as we might watching Oliver!, we want Matilda to be a heroine for our times. Just as she rescues her timid teacher, Miss Honey, the confident and capable Matilda (and the marvellous children who perform her) gives all of us, adults and children, the lessons we need.

Matilda The Musical is on stage in Sydney until December 20, details here.

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