Touring – reviewed at Edinburgh Playhouse
Stories rule in the RSC’s brilliant production of Matilda The Musical in an adaptation which feels properly true to the spirit of its Roald Dahl original – complete with dangerous spikes and revolting children.
Out on its first ever UK tour, after eight hit years in London, the show has a big West End feel to it. There’s no cutting corners with the cast numbers or scrimping back on the set, in a production which fills the stage with noise and bustle, yet always uses its clever special effects to serve that story.
Dennis Kelly’s book is rather closer to Dahl’s original than the film adaptation. As always, five year-old Matilda Wormwood is a precocious, book-reading talent in a TV-loving family with a dodgy used car salesman for a dad, an amateur dance fanatic for a mother (complete with oily smooth dance partner) and slothful older brother.
Bullied at home, she escapes to the library where she weaves a tantalising story of an escapologist and an acrobat for librarian Mrs Phelps. Soon she is off to Miss Trunchbull’s primary school, Crunchem Hall where her teacher, Miss Honey tries to stand up for her pupils but cannot withstand Trunchbull’s withering power.
Everything about the production serves the story, from Rob Howell’s clever set design which, as it labels everything with its name, actively supports and colours the action rather than simply framing it, to the choreography and movement which says as much about the characters as a paragraph of writing could.
But what stands out is the sheer power of that storytelling. From the oppressively over-loved children in the opening scene and straight into the cleverly worked five-years-ago flashback, you know where Matilda will be coming from when she eventually steps out on stage.
And when she does, golly isn’t Scarlett Cecil (one of four Matildas, who played the role at the press performance) a delight. Her movements are concise and her voice is clarity itself as she punches Matilda into existence during her first big number, Naughty.
“Just because you find that life’s not fair it doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it” she sings as she squeezes her mother’s peroxide into her father’s hair-oil. Here is a girl who stands up to her parents and will undoubtedly stay defiant at school, determined to change her own story.
All the while, the whole show is being driving forward on several levels. Tim Minchin’s music adds the frissons of tension or drive as appropriate, his lyrics add one layer and the performances themselves add another.
Which does mean that at some points the musical theatre side of the whole thing falls away a bit. Indeed, there are a couple of numbers – School Song in particular – where it all becomes a bit of a soup. It looks great but it is all about the general thrust of the thing and the particulars of the moment become lost.
That said, the performances are almost outrageously strong, particularly from the eight-strong child ensemble who integrate seamlessly with the adult performers. The school scenes are huge fun but the whole thing really comes to a head in the delicious When I Grow Up, performed on swings (with the cast arriving on stage by slide) and combining humour and longing with real pathos.
The named adult cast are equally strong. Unctuous Sebastien Torkia and needle-sharp Rebecca Thornhill as the Wormwoods; Carly Thoms putting in a tender almost tremulous performance as a Miss Honey who lives up to her name; and Michelle Chantelle Hopewell sprinkling a little magic on Mrs Phelps.
The Company. Pic: Manuel Harlan
And then there is Elliot Harper, who has a delightfully knowing take on Miss Trunchbull. She is as vile and bullying and beyond the pale as you would hope – but for all her villainy, he finds a bit of humanity to her, thus allowing her to become progressively nasty over the course of the show. And once again, it is the strength of his physical performance which gives it its power.
If this is not quite perfect – the multiple endings promise full-on Dahl-style fatalism but end up delivering a slightly over-sugared resolution – it is still a production that grips from beginning to end.
Moreover, the depth and all embracing nature of its storytelling ensure that it is one which you would happily watch several times and find something new in every one.
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes (including one interval)
Edinburgh Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA.
Tuesday 2 – Saturday 27 April 2019.
Evenings: 7.30pm; Matinees Wed, Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets & Details: Book online.
Matilda the Musical website: https://uk.matildathemusical.com.
Matilda the Musical on UK tour:
Tue 2 – Sat 27 April 2019
0844 871 3014
Tue 7 May – Sat 8 June 2019
0844 871 3012
Tue 11 June – Sat 6 July 2019
02380 711 811
Tue 16 July – Sat 17 August 2019
01603 630 000