In Roald Dahl’s last book, Matilda (1988), we are invited to laugh at the main character’s parents. They hate books, love TV, dress tastelessly and subsist on microwave TV dinners. Yet only when I saw the musical at the Cambridge Theatre in London this past Tuesday, where the mother additionally practices competition ballroom dancing and both parents speak in a broad Cockney accent, did I realise what the whole thing is actually about.
It’s an opportunity for us middle-class bookworms to laugh at a tasteless working-class family who’s come into a bit of money (through the husband’s fraudulent used-car dealership). Their unfeeling cruelty towards their bookish daughter makes them worse even than Harry Potter’s aunt and step-father. And sitting in an audience of predominantly white middle-class feminist book lovers, I started to find it hard to laugh at Matilda’s parents. The musical is an excellent production. But I didn’t like the ham-fisted way in which my buttons were being pressed.