The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Roald Dahl's Matilda The Musical. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Matilda the Musical

22nd November 2013

Matilda the Musical: Cambridge Theatre, London

Reviewed by David Shadwick

It’s only taken me about two years to see the show that everyone is continually raving about. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told ‘you must go’, ‘you’ll love it’. With such continual praise, would it really live up to all the hype?

Roald Dahl’s classic tale is of a remarkably gifted little girl, with a passion for books and reading, and who obtains paranormal powers which she exploits to great effect to get revenge on the bullying adults in her life: her neglectful, hateful parents and her terrifying headmistress, Miss Trunchbull.

We’ve all seen the excellent film (it’s bound to be on again this Christmas) so drawing any comparisons here would be churlish. But I take my hat off to the Royal Shakespeare Company who cleverly capture all the essence and magic – and, moreover, the heart – of the original. Director Matthew Warchus’s production for the RSC bursts onto the stage with an amazing energy and vitality which doesn’t let up. It’s rather like opening a bottle of Moet – refreshing, moreish, full of fizz – and one that continues to bubble away all evening.

There’s plenty of fun to be had in this adaptation by Dennis Kelly (book) and Tim Minchin (music and lyrics) which thankfully never takes itself too seriously. It’s a riot from start to finish, with plenty of tongue-in-cheek humour and welcome smatterings of pathos in all the right places.

The deft and effective set design (by Rob Howell) never fails to amaze, as it literally accompanies Matilda on her adventures, sliding, lifting, dropping and turning its way through a myriad of locations. Add to this the colourfully outrageous costumes and Hugh Vanstone’s ambitious lighting design and you have an inspired visual and technical masterpiece – no mean feat on such a small stage.

The adults all have a whale of a time portraying Dahl’s larger than life characters, none more so than Alex Gaumond who is the epitome of that ghastly headmistress we all love to hate, Miss Trunchbull. Haley Flaherty is all floral dresses making for a suitably genuine and sweet-natured Miss Honey, Matilda’s teacher, in complete contrast to her brash and brassy mother, brilliantly played by Kay Murphy, who danced up a storm with Rudolpho (Joshua Lay), in a show-stopping number ‘Loud’.

But it’s the kids that really steal the show with confidence and talent in abundance. I loved their individual cheery personalities. They can all certainly belt out a song, and when it comes to dancing, they’ve been drilled to perfection, coping with amazing ease with Peter Darling’s demanding and dazzling choreography.

The opening ensemble number is a joy, as is the one in front of the school gates (‘School Song’) – another cleverly staged number, with the twenty six letters of the alphabet ingeniously taking on an integral part in yet another of Darling’s daring choreographic work for this production.

I loved the use of swings in ‘When I grow up’, probably the most well-known number from the show. Simply staged and beautifully poignant, it’s a reflective respite to some of the more pulsating numbers, which although quirky and totally right for the show, don’t linger long enough in your head.

Cristina Fray (Matilda in the performance I saw) has a lovely understated, yet confident and believable presence. She has all the necessary guts, yet cleverly prevents her performance from turning into what could so easily have become a ‘precocious brat’. Her rendition of the ballad ‘Quiet’ was beautiful.

As the ‘baddies’ were eventually taken down (cue enthusiastic response) and Matilda’s magical journey reaches a happy ending, the entire audience leapt to their feet in a spontaneous standing ovation. It was a fitting reaction to this enthralling, thoroughly entertaining show, which is certainly one of the best productions currently on in the West End.

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