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42 Balloons, Come From Away 1000, and Matilda the Musical the Movie

It was unusual, to say the least, to be seeing two theatre shows on a Monday – outside the Edinburgh Fringe, that is – but the combination of running down my annual leave and the unsurprising availability of seats for a Monday afternoon performance of 42 Balloons was too good an opportunity to pass up. On paper, it’s a story that shouldn’t really work on stage, a point the musical acknowledges in its opening number, asking why anyone would come to see a show about a man, Larry Walters (Charlie McCullagh) who attached forty-two weather balloons to a lawn chair. It also challenges the audience to read up on the story after the show if they’d like to verify the authenticity of the musical’s narrative.

There’s a considerable amount of energy thrown into the performances, and Alexzandra Sarmiento’s choreography sparkles alongside Jack Godfrey’s musical numbers that provide a palpable sense of Walters’ dream coming to fruition. His girlfriend, Carol Van Deusen, had taken out a bank loan to pay for the balloons and accompanying helium tanks ($15,000, apparently) and by the interval, it feels as though the bulk of the storyline has been told – he’s up in the air, just like he’d wanted to be for years and years.

But why do it in this manner? He was rejected for pilot training by the US Air Force because he didn’t have 20/20 vision. Things take a dark turn after the event, however – let’s just say not everyone appreciated his efforts, particularly as he rose up to 16,000ft and was spotted by aeroplane pilots. In doing so he went into federal airspace, and got into trouble with the authorities for doing so – in other words, he’d put his own life and those of passengers on flights in the area at risk. An unusual story, but not an unusual narrative arc – it’s a show about pursuing your dreams when all the odds are against you. It’s uplifting (sorry, but it is!) and unlike many new British musicals, it’s vibrant and lively with musical numbers that push forward the narrative. I wish the show well.

I was amused to read that a friend had gone to see Come From Away a few days after I revisited it for its 1000th West End performance, and found it rather dull, with no memorable lyrics aside from “welcome to the Rock”. There’s not that much to look at, with chairs doubling up as aeroplane seats, bar seats, bus seats, although there is a bit more scenery than the show is sometimes given credit for. Anyway, the producers had expressed their thanks at the end of the 1000th show, and not only gave special credit to the five covers who were on that evening (Sorelle Marsh, Craig Armstrong, Matthew Whennell-Clark, Ash Roussetty and Jennifer Tierney) but gave recognition to the fans, by calling up Lydia Greatrix, a video journalist from Shropshire, dressed in cosplay, to deliver the news that the show was going to embark on a UK tour from February 2024.

The next day I went to see the film adaptation of the musical Matilda – just mentioning I was at the cinema on social media resulted in various comments about how a particular song from the stage production wasn’t included in the movie, a certain character had been written out, and so on. These are evidently people who have little or no understanding of the word ‘adaptation’, which by rights should annoy the purists. It’s worth seeing the show in a different medium – it’s imaginative in its own way, creating very elaborate scenes that big budget motion pictures can do.

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