Touring – reviewed at Curve, Leicester
What is it about Roald Dahl’s stories that have so captured the minds of theatre-makers? To my mind it is his ability to present moral fables without sugar-coating the truth, often served up with great dollops of gruesome humour and characters that fizz with personality, while never underestimating the reader’s intelligence and imagination. Dahl’s enduring popularity with both children and adults make him the perfect source for family-friendly stage work.
The lyrics to ‘Naughty’ in Matilda the Musical succinctly capture of the ethos of Dahl’s work – the underdog overcoming adversity; Robin Hood-ing your way out of a problem; childhood revelry; razor-sharp wit – and in the show Tim Minchin (music and lyrics), Dennis Kelly (book) and Matthew Warchus (director) have created the greatest Dahl adaptation to date.
Neglected by shallow parents who’d rather preen and watch endless amounts of TV than spend time with their daughter, five-year-old Matilda Wormwood escapes into a world of books and make-believe. Her precocious intelligence and determination to do what’s right endear her to her peers and caring-but-timid teacher, Miss Honey (Carly Thoms). Alongside these new found friends she uses her ‘miraculous’ gifts to serve her ignorant parents and bullying headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Craige Els), their long-awaited comeuppance.
Minchin peppers the show with catchy tunes and his trademark lyrical wit; the ‘School Song’ is a particular highlight as the nervous newcomers get a lesson in both the alphabet and the perils of the education system. Minchin’s use of homophones is nothing short of genius. Elsewhere, puns a plenty (‘Revolting Children’) and a darn good raiding of the thesaurus – without, may I add, feeling at all exploitative – (‘The Smell of Rebellion’ has a definitive list of every olfactory-related synonym in the English language!) exemplify the same skilful wordsmithery which so enchanted me in Minchin’s Groundhog Day (another collaboration with Warchus).
Kelly’s book is just as absorbing as the musical numbers, allowing each character their moment to shine in a series of anecdotal episodes – Bruce Bogtrotter and the chocolate cake, Lavender and the newt, Amanda Thripp and her pigtails, etc. The subplot in which Matilda narrates the story of the Acrobat and the Escapologist is a beautiful insight into her imagination as well as sweetly revealing her yearning for a loving family. Storytelling imbues much of the aesthetic of Warchus’ production, from the cartoonish stylisation of the Wormwoods and employment of music hall type interaction seen in ‘Telly’, to Rob Howell’s building block-cum-scrabble tile design.
Peter Darling’s choreography is punchy with echoes of the original Spring Awakening movement. The kids hurl themselves in and out of angular positions with rebellious verve, while desks, swings and even parts of the walls become platforms upon which to express the constraints and freedoms of the young. Warchus ensures the fun extends to the very final seconds of the show, with a wonderfully directed curtain call involving scooters whizzing across the stage and an in-character Craige Els delivering an arch ‘maggots’ to the audience. I doubt there was a person in the room that didn’t wish they were up on the stage joining in with the uninhibited playfulness of the finale.
Els evidently has a lot of fun with Miss Trunchbull, relishing in her down right nastiness while revealing a sprightly, and surprising, vigour such as when blithely flipping over a gym horse. Likewise, Rebecca Thornhill and Sebastien Torkia have a blast as the despicable Wormwoods, and, though a lad of few words, Matthew Caputo had me cracking up with his portrayal of Matilda’s dim-witted brother, Michael. Yet, quite rightly, and as ever when it comes to Dahl, the children run away with the whole show. By turns impish, sweet, and laugh-out-loud funny, the child cast are impeccable and more than match their adult counterparts. At this performance Matilda was played by Nicola Turner, and she was tremendous. One of my favourite moments was her Act 2 number, ‘Quiet’, which Minchin packs full of twisting lyrics and complex concepts involving physics and philosophy. Turner expresses these perplexing notions with great poise, building up the web of thoughts and noise that both feed and confound Matilda’s brain. We can feel her frustration and the peace that ensues is ethereally tranquil as a consequence. Turner’s performance is one of subtlety and maturity which is truly joyful to behold.
Kelly and Minchin have bottled Dahl’s dual senses of whimsy and justice and Warchus’ spectacular production never relies on gimmicks. The kids in the audience were rapt with attention, the adults tickled and charmed in equal measure – Matilda is THE family musical of this generation and a must-see for musical theatre aficionados for Minchin’s score alone. The fun and mischief is infectious and I can’t remember the last time I smiled this much at the theatre.