by Dennis Taylor and Tim Minchin.
At the Cambridge Theatre, London.
Booking to October 21, 2012.
The Royal Shakespeare Company has found its next Les Mis!
Matilda, which has arrived in the West End from Stratford upon Avon, will probably be around in another 25 years. For those who think the West End is dumbing down, the Australian comic and songwriter Tim Minchin has proved them wrong here with songs of sparkling originality and wit. He is complemented by Dennis Kelly’s masterful book which perfectly captures the twisted nature of Roald Dahl’s original novel while at the same time rendering it totally theatrical.
The show is dark, ingenious and anarchic yet also joyful and incredibly deeply felt. It never shirks from the cruelty of its heroine’s fate. Matilda is a child prodigy (who has read her way through Dickens and Dostoevsky) as displacement for the cruel rejection by her teddy boy, used-car salesman, dad (Paul Kaye), and her dolly-bird, ballroom dancing obsessed, mum (Josie Walker). School doesn’t help either as she ends up at Cruchem Hall (motto “children are maggots”), where she is bullied by the sadistic head teacher Miss Trunchbull, but finally finds a soul mate in the sympathetic teacher Miss Honey (Lauren Ward, in great voice), who recognises her gifts.
Bertie Carvell’s creation of Trunchbull will most likely win every award going and the audience response to the character is a marvel. A former Olympic hammer throwing champion, she is the games mistress from hell, like a Sherman tank in a gymslip. This nightmarish character is every child’s exaggeration of a horrible teacher and it encapsulates the show’s sensibility. Rob Howell’s astonishing designs (a cavernous forest of piles of books and alphabet blocks) manages to be both epic and simple at the same time.
To escape her pain Matilda tells stories to a kindly librarian. One tale about a married Escapologist and an Acrobat, so obviously reflects her yearning for love and affection but it also scarily predicts the fate of her teacher Miss Honey.
Under Matthew Warchus’s expert direction the show is packed with moments of perfect invention. ‘When I Grow Up’ has the kids on swings, growing up before our eyes, in what is a beautifully poignant child’s-eye view of being an adult. The fact that Minchin’s lyrics can sometimes get lost in the hoopla is the only downside.
Adults who keep a wide berth of anything involving children would be very mistaken to overlook this show. Its singular achievement, and what will make it an international hit, is that it is an adult show where most of the cast are children. And what children they are! Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling must have gone in for military style drilling of this troupe, they are so perfect and consistent, yet they retain their own charm and individuality. Darling’s movement direction is riotously inventive. The dreaded stage school clichés of Annie kids are nowhere to be seen here and even the littlest ones (and tiny tot Ted Wilson is a standout) are stretched to the limit and rise to it.
Four girls share the incredibly demanding role of Matilda and on the night I saw it Eleanor Worthington-Cox was the solid centre of the piece, bringing seriousness to the part that was profoundly moving. That girl and this show are going places.