Book: Dennis Kelly, from the book by Roald Dahl
Music and Lyrics: Tim Minchin
Director: Matthew Warchus
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Matilda Wormwood is a precocious, intelligent, imaginative and resilient girl with a strong sense of what is right. By the age of five, she has taught herself the three Rs and has read many of the classics. Yet in a world where every parent believes their child to be special, Matilda’s home life is one of mental abuse from parents wrapped up in their own worlds and who take pride in never having read a book. As Matilda immerses herself in her library books, she ponders why characters trapped on an inevitable path don’t just change their story.
Then she enters Crunchem School, overseen by Miss Trunchbull. Miss Trunchbull is an ex-champion hammer thrower who lives her life following rules to the letter. Any transgression, real or imagined, is severely punished. Matilda is taken under the wing of the sympathetic new teacher, Miss Honey, who wants to promote Matilda to get a more appropriate school experience; this, of course, is against the rules. Matilda recognises that sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty (Naughty), and through imaginative naughtiness, and an unlikely telekinetic power that seems to appear because her powerful brain simply isn’t occupied enough by school work, she is able to achieve justice both at home and in the school as she changes both her story and of those around her.
The programme notes for Matilda the Musical tells us that the musical had a long gestation in order to get it right; indeed, from the mooting of an idea from the Dahl estate to the Royal Shakespeare Company to the first performance took around seven years, during which time Tim Minchin, Dennis Kelly and director, Matthew Warchus, set about changing Matilda’s story to suit the stage. Opening at The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford upon Avon in 2010, it received immediate critical acclaim and went on to win many awards and to be produced all over the world; now on tour, it’s returned to its home region.
And that critical acclaim is well-deserved. The story rattles along as we enter into the world of Matilda, her home and Crunchem School, assisted by Rob Howell’s imaginative sliding set and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design that evoke Matilda’s world of books and words. The characters are well-drawn, even the grotesque Mr and Mrs Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull, and the songs give valuable insights into the characters: Naughty; The Hammer, in which Trunchbull sets out her stall for a rules-driven world; Pathetic, in which Miss Honey berates herself for her timidity; and the quite beautifully wistful When I Grow Up, in which the children imagine what being grown-up must be like, through the lens of their childlike imaginations.
On this occasion, Matilda was played by Lara Cohen, one of four Matildas on tour. Cohen brings Matilda to life, showing her thoughts and singing sweetly; much rests on those young shoulders but they meet the challenge and bear the load. Craige Els is thoroughly dislikeable as Trunchbull, inhabiting the rôle with great physical presence, physicality and relish. Rebecca Thornhill (Mrs Wormwood) and Sebastien Torkia (Mr Wormwood) provide light relief even as they unthinkingly abuse Matilda: they are pantomimic but never cross that line. Carly Thoms brings us the timid Miss Honey who manages to triumph, with Matilda’s help, over adversity while Michelle Chantelle Hopewell’s librarian Mrs Phelps, who provides perhaps Matilda’s first positive adult rôle model is wonderfully motherly and supportive.
But the evening belongs to the children, including Madeline Gilby as the precocious Lavender and Dylan Hughes as the gluttonous Bruce, forced to eat a whole chocolate cake as punishment.
Matilda is, of course, a show for, and celebrating, children. But it has other messages that resonate in world events, including somewhat prescient hints of the fake news agenda. But principally, it’s a superb night of entertainment: one feels pricks behind the eyes as well as joy and laughter as the characters change their stories for the better, leaving one with a smile on the face and a refreshed attitude to the world.
Runs Until 8 September 2018 and on tour | Image: Manuel Harlan