The wonderful thing about revolting children

How better to mark World Book Day than with a review of a musical based upon a book, featuring one of literature’s greatest bibliophiles? In fact, how better to celebrate a friend’s 30th than with a trip to what is unquestionably one of the best British musicals ever…

Matilda, stage

The last time the RSC produced a musical about a telekinetic child, it became the quickest, most expensive flop in Broadway’s history – Carrie the Musical is a classic, but for all the wrong reasons. [Though, in its defence, and having listened to the soundtrack multiple times, there are some gems there…] In fact, I was geekily pleased that The Stage referenced it in its review of Matilda:

“A quarter of a century ago, the RSC co-produced Les Misérables, which has turned into the West End’s longest-ever running musical and a worldwide hit. Now, via an unfortunate detour with Carrie, one of the most notorious Broadway flops when they transferred it from Stratford to New York, they’ve finally hit the musical jackpot again.”

 Musical jackpot it indeed is. It does a rare job of attracting and entertaining adults and children alike. Last night’s audience seemed to consist of vast swathes of children, and hordes of adults around my age. It’s quite possibly a happy coincidence that many of Tim Minchin’s (writer of the musical) fans are a generation that were the right age to read Matilda when the book came out in 1988.Discovering that we were sat in the middle of a massive school group filled me with terror, but it’s testament to the genius of the production that they stayed (pretty) quiet for the duration. Sure, Jo had to explain why we don’t kick seats or predict lines loudly, but most of the time you barely knew they were there. In fact, early on I was worried that the pace of dialogue and clever literary references might have been beyond a crowd of 8 year olds, but as was pointed out to me, there was also an entire scene focused upon ‘the biggest, most chocolatey burp in the world’, which you probably have to be 8 (or male) to truly appreciate. Looking behind me as the theatre was filled with laser beams, I saw a sea of enraptured faces – beautiful.

For those of us who grew up with Dahl, the texts are almost sacred. I doubt you’d find a British child of the 80s/90s who approves of the Matilda film – it’s not even set in England, for goodness sake! The Witches was a good effort, but they changed the ending; and I can’t ever complain about Jonny Depp so Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is ok, but it says something that Dahl himself didn’t like any of the adaptations he lived to see made. The musical is more faithful to the book than the film – the characters look like they’ve stepped out of Quentin Blake’s illustrations (especially Mr Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull) and the key plot elements are there. Yes, there’s the addition of a glorious story about an escapologist and acrobat used a device to tell the audience about Miss Honey’s parents, but it’s so beautifully done that I couldn’t possibly hold it against them. (Matilda tells the story to the librarian and at one point it’s depicted with shadow puppets, which is simply stunning.)

The script and songs also faithfully adheres to Dahl’s distinctive language. The reason why kids love Dahl is because he speaks like they do – or how they’d like to, if they were allowed. The language is often beautifully disgusting, or taps into the ‘nice naughtiness’ you wish all children had. I’d forgotten just how much of a childhood crime it was to call someone stupid, until Mr Wormwood used the word in reference to an adult member of the audience – the children near me gasped at it!

Before I left for the theatre, a friend commented on my Facebook status and said that she predicted I’d be a Bertie Carvel fan before the night was out – she was right. Bertie is the man – yes, man – who plays Miss Trunchbull, and he’s phenomenal. Pam Ferris was a very masculine Trunchbull in the movie, but the musical goes for a man playing a woman as an effeminate gay man angle, which works spectacularly well. Can you picture the Trunchbull doing rhythmic gymnastics with a ribbon? No? Trust me, it works perfectly! [There’s a glimpse of it in the trailer below.] Listen to her song about throwing the hammer, and you’ll start to understand…

The most important element in a musical has to be the songs, and they are marvellous. If you’re a Tim Minchin fan, you’ll know the range of his style, if you’re not then you’re in for a treat. There’s a real mix of raucous lively numbers and beautifully moving ones. Two of my favourites are helpfully ones that are available on YouTube – the winner of ‘best use of swings in a musical’, When I Grow Up which is almost tear-jerkingly lovely; and the guaranteed to have you clapping and cheering Revolting Children.

That boy who kicks off the song is Bruce Bogtrotter – of chocolate cake fame. There’s an entire song dedicated to that scene – called, aptly, Bruce – one could say that only an Australian could write such an awesome song about a Bruce…

I know I’m a massive musical theatre geek, but this is no niche musical. I’d go as far as to say that it’s one of the most accessible pieces of theatre I’ve seen (although One Man Two Guvnors would come a very recent second), and isn’t something parents should begrudge seeing. In fact, I suspect they might enjoy it more than their children do. The major challenge is acquiring decently priced tickets. Last night was clearly a sell-out – unusual for a mid-week evening in term-time – and ‘cheap’ tickets must be nigh-on impossible to come by. But persevere, you won’t regret it.

How do you define ‘seriously’?

In amongst the birthday cards and gifts my sister brought with her to London on Saturday was non-birthday gift that I knew to expect – a hardback copy of The Chalet School Goes To It which my mother had purchased after a detailed phone call with me a few days earlier. First thing I did after extracting it from its paper bag? Opened it up at a random page and inhaled deeply – there is little better in this world than the smell of a 60 year old hardback school story…

At some point during our picnic I mentioned my latest acquisition and was asked if I had similar rules for Chalet School hardbacks as for paperbacks. (I have a variety of book collection rules but will never go into the tedium of my CS paperback collection here, suffice to say I now have a full set that I’m almost happy with.) I think my response was “Oh no! I don’t take collecting the hardbacks seriously!” – to which the (possibly sarcastic reply) was “So you’d take a book in any kind of condition, with the spine hanging off?”. When I said that I wouldn’t, my friends suggested that I was taking this more seriously than originally claimed – so let me explain:

Firstly, once I had my complete paperback set, my Chalet School collecting passion was fairly satisfied. I had all the stories as well as various other bits and pieces – pretty impressive considering there are 62 books in total. Secondly, the paperbacks were hard enough to come by – the hardbacks are even worse. I’ve acquired a few, some for free, but dedicating time and resources to finding all 58 hardbacks is not something I can justify.

This is the only complete hardback set I’ve seen in the flesh. 
It was the highlight of a New Years’ house party nearly three years ago (a friend was house-sitting). 
In fact, I recently discovered the owner may be a tutor of mine next year, which would be exceptionally exciting. 

But, when I joined Friends of the Chalet School (FOCS) [oh yes, for two years I was that much of a geek – though, to be fair, it was their book selling network that helped me complete my collection] I discovered a terrible thing. When Armada began publishing the paperbacks, they edited the original text. In some cases it was just minor – updating of language and removal of now offence terms – in other cases it saw the deletion of entire chapters, new titles or even two books instead of one. (If you’re a geek too, here’s a list of how the series fared.) Finding that my collection was missing bits of the plot incensed me, so in the back of my head, my priority for hardback purchases is those that suffered most at  the editors’ pens.

[Incidentally, a lot of classic children’s literature suffered from this and is only now being dealt with. Check the editions you grew up with and you may well discover a mention of ‘abridged’ if you look closely enough. And don’t get me started on Enid Blyton & the transformation of Aunt Fanny to Aunt Franny! They’d better not tamper with Arthur Ransome’s Titty…]

Fortunately, when I was a member of FOCS, I was able to read accounts of exactly how these editions differed and in some cases, read the missing chapters. For the first time I discovered that Princess Elisaveta reappeared at the school during WW2, and just how lucky I was to have read the unabridged Three Go To The Chalet School before acquiring the paperback version. (And yes, I’d have loved to write my own comparison, but the hardbacks I owned had already been done.)

So, jumping into bed with my newest hardback on Sunday night was an exciting prospect as I looked forward to new discoveries. I won’t bore you with the details, but the fact that Goes To It became The Chalet School At War in paperback gives an indication of the differences. I know, it’s sad, but it makes me happy…

Predictably, once I read one, I couldn’t stop. This is a particularly dangerous prospect given (a) the size of the series and (b) that I’d intended them to go into storage in 3 weeks time. Then I went online to see if I could find any of the old comparison articles. I couldn’t, but did find that new fill-in titles were available. I’m in two minds about these, on the one hand the ones I’ve read have been good and very true to EBD’s style. On the other hand, there are errors and these annoy me, plus, I’m not sure if it’s the right thing to do. But, if you’re a fan of the series, I do recommend those sold by the Girls Gone By Publishers (who now have the CS publishing rights). Then I found a real black hole – online fan fiction.

Fan fiction can be rather dodgy. I’ve heard about the mass of Potter related fanfic, much of which seems to veer on pornographic. Suffice to say that CS fans aren’t as lewd – though I did appreciate one story in which the predictable, somewhat formulaic structure of the series was fought against (and where Joey and Jack actually had sex – shock horror!) and there are a couple of predictable girls’ school insinuations. I also discovered a brilliant post end of series story about Len’s daughter which actually brought a tear to my eye, in much the way that occasionally EBD originals have.

Finally, if you are a fan and believe yourself to have fairly encyclopaedic knowledge, what’s better than a few quizzes? It’s possible I may have wasted around 30 minutes of my evening down that particular black hole!

Etiquette is fun and so are children

It’s rare that I’d include something for Friday Fun that’s basically an advert for an opera. Call me uncultured, but I’m really not a massive fan of it. That’s not to say I don’t go (I have a good friend who’s an opera singer and I go faithfully when I’m able), it’s just that given the choice between an evening at Glynebourne and a night at Wicked, well – you know where I’d be. But this little gem is less about the opera and more about how we live our online lives these days:

[If you’re thinking what I was thinking at the end of that video, his name’s Jolyon Rubinstein and he’s on Twitter.]

That gem arrived in my inbox on Monday morning, thanks to a friend who’s giving a talk on intimacy at New Wine next week. Last week he’d asked me if I knew any examples of ridiculous Facebook or Twitter updates where people over-shared. No idea why he thought to ask me…

I could think of a few examples – a friend who had recently shared a rather detailed story of her baby’s birth; a couple who gave each other sex toys via some random Facebook virtual gift service; someone who celebrated their boyfriend’s divorce – I could go on. However, what I sent him instead, was something I’ve been thinking of sharing on here for a while, but needed to be done in a sensitive way.

STFU Parents is a brilliant site. Less crass than Damn You, Auto Correct! and the like, its author actually thinks carefully about the submissions she posts and writes (often hilarious) commentary to go alongside them. The premise is simple: do you have friends who overshare about their children and make everything – even things you post that have nothing to do with children – about their children? If so, this is the place to share such things.

We all have such friends, to a greater or lesser extent (see the birth example I gave above) but honestly, some of the stuff on the site is beyond belief. I’ve been sitting on this for months [i.e. even before it appeared on The Hairpin, Annabelle…] because I didn’t want to offend friends who have children. I like seeing updates about funny things babies and toddlers do, I’m happy to read endless updates about sick children who need prayer, I love a cute photo as much as the next single, female 20 something…but sometimes it just goes a little far. However, I don’t think I’ve ever had a friend post a photo of their child next to a stuffed coyote

Then there’s ‘Mommyjacking’, where Mom’s hijack a non-child related status to make it all about their child (e.g. this innocent post about an incompetent HR department which suddenly becomes a breastfeeding tutorial). Actually, hijacking statuses (statii?) is generally inappropriate – you respond to the content of the post, it’s not a place for a general catch up – am I alone in this? What about photos involving faeces? Just wrong, plain wrong, but so many people share them.

If you have children, or like me, are very young at heart, then you should appreciate the final component of today’s fun: a quiz. Who doesn’t like quizzes? This week the Guardian challenges you on your knowledge of schools in children’s books. I’m loathe to admit that I only got 6/10, but my knowledge of later Jaqueline Wilson is patchy; I’ve not read/watched Charlie & Lola; and I made a tragic Famous Five error…

Saplings and Shoes

You may recall that in January I fell down a black-hole, finding myself in the world of children’s literature – particularly that written by Noel Streatfeild. I ordered a load of her books, including some old favourites (to prevent sibling battles over our dog eared editions), unread classics and the only one of her adult novels (under the Streatfeild name) that can be found in print – Saplings.

Treating this stack of books in a somewhat logical fashion, I began with the unread children’s books – starting with those that I knew I hadn’t read, moving through to those that I might have borrowed from the library once upon a time and ending with Saplings.

What I learnt, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that Streatfeild’s children’s books were at their strongest pre-1960 and when they dealt with the theatrical world. Dancing Shoes (I unfortunately could only get hold of the re-named Wintle’s Wonders) was published in 1957 and tells the tale of two orphans who end up living with an aunt who runs a dancing school. The loss of parents is a recurring theme in Streatfeild’s work and this book had me blubbing every time the recently deceased mother was mentioned (at least twice this happened in public – at the gym & on the train). I genuinely enjoyed it and was captivated for the day in which I gobbled it up.

The other two were ones which I was fairly sure I’d read, but knew I didn’t own. Gemma is the first book in the Gemma series and we owned the second one, (I actually had my Mum on the phone at one point checking bookshelves prior to placing my order!), but it turned out I actually hadn’t read the first one. Written in the late 1960s, the stories are – despite their references to TV and films – probably better suited to the 1940s or 50s. The same was true of Ballet Shoes for Anna (1972) which featured a trio of siblings orphaned by a Turkish earthquake and sent to live with a horrid uncle in London’s suburbia. But both were perfectly good escapism and at least meant that my handbag’s load was lighter for a few days.

Saplings was a joy as soon as it arrived. The Persephone edition is beautiful – and you know how much I love beautiful books. Although it’s a paperback, it’s sturdy and has a virtual dust-jacket. The inside also features the pattern designed by Marion Dorn that features on my special edition of 84 Charing Cross Road (yes, I’m a geek, but I considered this to be a good omen!).

Set during WW2, it gets off to an ominous start by describing a near-perfect day in June 1939 – so you immediately realise that perfection will be shattered in a matter of weeks. Like her children’s books, this concentrates on the lives of the children, but makes reference to adult relationships in quite an un-children’s literature kind of way. [There are no x-rated scenes, but it’s made clear that the children’s mother relies upon sex as escapism from the horrors of war, oh, and she gets drunk – a lot.]

The theme of absent parents recurs again – in some ways, her description of evacuation reminded me of When the Siren Wailed (another of her books which even now I probably couldn’t get through without tears). Although the Wiltshire family is most definitely upper middle class, their grandparents also have to host a couple of East End evacuees along with their grandchildren. Death isn’t brushed under the carpet and its impact becomes the main theme of the book, with Streatfeild evolving a plotline that reflected child psychology theory of the decade to come. Oh, and yes, it also made me cry.

The children don’t dance, or sing, or behave preciously (apart from Kim – a boy – who is pretty and knows it), there are no dance schools – this is gritty realism. Children get bullied, have breakdowns, create imaginary friends, are accused of seducing their uncles (ok, only one child’s accused of this) – this is real life at its most real.

It’s not up to the standard of her children’s books – which is probably why none of her adult fiction has attained the legendary status of her juvenile works – but it’s definitely readable. It should also be noted that the book includes an afterword. Approaching the end of the book I was surprised when it suddenly ended, despite a wodge of pages still to come. Publishers be warned – I do not smile upon such tricks! But, if you’re a Streatfeild fan I recommend it as a very interesting contrast to her other work.

I appear to have written a children’s book without knowing

It’s long been an ambition of mine to write a book, though I accepted a long time ago that this hypothetical literary work was unlikely to be a novel, thanks to my massive lack of imagination. The only way I’d manage it is if I made it semi-autobiographical, but let’s face it, my life’s not really been interesting enough to justify 300+ pages of reading.

However, today I discovered the existence of a book that could, quite feasibly, have been written by me. The lovely Miss Bush sent me this photo, presumably taken on a walk through London Town:

The message that accompanied the photo read: “I know you went to Durham, not Yorkshire, but still – is this you?!” I’m imagining that she was struck by the words ‘comedy’, ‘boys’, ‘bonkers mates’ and ‘bearded northerners’ – all things that I’m known to like. [For those wondering at the Durham reference, in September I had an amusing weekend in the city where I learnt all sorts of things about acceptable clothing and amenities in pub toilets. It’s not the only place ‘up north’ that I’ve been too and I did in fact live in Yorkshire briefly…] 
I was initially drawn to the stripy tights (I own two pairs of such hosiery) and then thought I ought to look the book up on Amazon. Here, things got weirder. The main character is called Tallulah – one of my all time favourite names (think Tori Amos song on Boys for Pele, not the character in Bugsy Malone) and, hypothetically, the pseudonym I’d use if ever I was writing an anonymous blog or a semi-autobiographical work of fiction. 
The synopsis of the plot explained that Tallulah was off to Yorkshire to spend a summer at a performing arts camp – even spookier, this book was about a theatrical child, my favourite sub-genre of children’s literature. She’s stuck in some rural ‘idyll’, with bearded men (and women), plus “wildlife of the squirrely-type”. Squirrels? Really? My arch nemeses ever since they attacked me in Regent’s Park while on my foraging expedition in December?? 
The final straw was the synopsis’ final sentence: “…cos it’s the THEATRE dahling, theatre!!”
Erm, if ever there was a person likely to use those actual words, with that emphasis, it would be me. In my world, ‘theatre’ always gets emphasised because of the (apparently ridiculous) way in which I say it. 
All very bizarre. Perhaps I should read Louise Dennison’s Withering Tights (great title, don’t you think?) just to see what other characteristics of my life crop up? In the mean time, it also means all those elements will now need to be excluded from my hypothetical novel…