Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Matilda the Musical, Cambridge Theatre

Review: Matilda the Musical, Cambridge Theatre

Published on Culture Wars, 25.11.2011

Matilda’s got its own Spiderman in the first five minutes: a spoilt brat in crude, homemade fancy dress. The RSC’s homegrown musical proves that you don’t need $75 million and mid-air battles to make a musical smash. It takes massive heart, fizzing wit and songs that stick with you like a superglue-lined trilby. Matilda’s got the lot and it already feels like a West End mainstay.

It works so brilliantly because, unlike so many musicals, it makes sure that it’s always one step ahead. There’s so much going on – never too much, mind – that just keeping up is all you can do. Nor does it ever shirk or sugarcoat the story’s harsher side, particularly the loneliness and cruelty. Each scene, number or routine knocks whatever came before completely out of mind, so that you spend two and a half hours completely in its thrall.

Faithful to Roald Dahl’s original story, Matilda makes a must-have playground accessory of outsider status. No matther the mockery, the little girl, scorned by her repulsive, slobbish family (if ever the term noveau garish needed inventing…) for preferring books to the box simply keeps on reading. By the time she gets to school, the terrifying Crunchem Hall, she’s standing up to anyone and everyone, including the dreaded Miss Trunchbull.

Where it makes additions, you’d think someone had a direct line to Dahl himself. We get Matilda’s story about a fantastical circus act, which turns out to enhance Miss Honey’s as a specifically Dahl heroine. In fact, this show makes sure that we see Miss Honey’s own struggle in its own right.

That a musical should have a message is rare these days. That it should have several – about standing up for yourself, intelligence and the fallibility of adults – is nothing short of astonishing. Matilda never patronises its audience, nor its young performers.

Dennis Kelly’s book is a brilliant, full of pace, snap and the savagery that makes Dahl such a delicious read. It’s in perfect sync with Tim Minchin’s score. His lyrics dazzle – miracle/umbilical anyone? – and around half of the songs are as catchy as the headlice at Crunchem Hall. When I Grow Up, a sudden jolt of sentimentality that opens act two, catches you offguard. It is a song destined for signature tune greatness.

Matilda’s famous powers of telekinesis feel rushed through, but this is a minor quibble. Matthew Warchus’s production, with ambitious choreography from Peter Darling, is a headrush of exuberance and perfectly captures the writer’s child’s eye view of the world. In Rob Howell’s scrabble-influenced design the colour is all out of reach.

The kids are tremendous, particularly (in the matinee I saw) Cleo Demetriou’s tiny Matilda and James Beesley’s mature Bruce Bogtrotter, and there are deliciously grotesque turns from Paul Kaye and Josie Walker as the Wormwood parents.

It is, however, Bertie Carvel’s show. His Miss Trunchbull is extraordinary: Richard III in a skirt. Carvel plays against your expectations. Rather than a bloused barbarian with a booming voice, he plays up the femininity. It’s a masterstroke and the result is a monstrous and steroidal amalgamation of Hannibal Lecter, Noel Coward and Margaret Thatcher. Cross ‘The Trunch’ and she drops to absolute zero, seething with buttocks clenched, before striding towards an arbitrary victim, her bosoms a waist-high battering ram.

An Oliver! for the 21st century, don’t be surprised if this is still around in ten years time. Quite simply, Matilda is a Giant Peach of a show.

Photograph: RSC

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