Matilda The Musical (Royal Shakespeare Company)
QPAC, Lyric Theatre
November 25 – February 12
“Matilda” is why we love musical theatre. It’s the type of production that stays with you so long after your first experience that you grieve for that moment a little in subsequent acquaintances with the text. As soon as you enter the theatre, Rob Howell’s set design strikes you with its wonder, filling the stage and proscenium with an overflow of coloured Scrabble-like letter squares. Not just through staging, however, “Matilda the Musical” is an uplifting experience in every possible way. The winner of five Tony Awards and overseas hit, may have retained some of its English sensibilities with mentions of treacle and trousers, but the Australian production is much less panto-esque than its West End counterpart, which, despite the Christmas-holiday timing of its Brisbane run, is a good thing.
Matilda Wormwood (played by Venice Harris on opening night) is a miracle child – a prodigy who read Dickens and Dostoyevsky, much to the chagrin of her self-centred parents. Only her teacher Miss Honey (Elise McCann) appreciates Matilda’s uniqueness. Unfortunately, her kindness is subverted by the school’s horrible headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (James Millar), a former Olympic hammer-throwing champion, who regards children as maggots to be ruled with iron-fisted punishment.
As means of escape, Matilda evokes her own stories, including a fantastical tale that takes the role of story-within-the-story ‘The Acrobat and the Escapologist’, which she shares in snippets with the school’s enraptured librarian Mrs Phelps (an engaging Cle Morgan). While Peter Darling’s vibrant choreography is infectiously endearing, even the carnival-eque mime and shadow puppetry portrayal of Matilda’s ‘The Acrobat and the Escapologist’ story cannot save its distraction for the primary (and original Roald Dahl) narrative.
Even though it contains all the necessary musical elements, including refrains to earworm songs into your mindset long after the curtain comes down, the show’s songs don’t move the story along so much as offer emotional connection. And they certainly rise to this occasion. Act One’s ‘School Song’ is a highlight in its synergy of all the show’s creative aspects, as glowing alphabet letters emerge from the gates as children head to Crunchem Hall Primary School. And when the show’s ‘adult’ children soar on swings above audience heads singing ‘When I Grow Up’ early in Act Two, it projects a simplicity that captures the show’s essential spirit. It is a wonderful moment too in the way it unites the child and adult performers singing in harmony.
Adults and children alike are perfectly polished in their performances. There is a delicacy to many of the characterisations thanks to adult performers who have honed their comic timing and delivery. As Matilda’s dismissive parents, more into looks than books, Nadia Komazec and Daniel Frederiksen are fabulously exaggerated. And Travis Khan is sensationally over-the-top when ‘in the zone’ as Rudolpho, Mrs Wormwood’s ‘part-Italian’ competitive dance partner.
Millar is equal parts funny and fearful as the imposing Miss Turchbell, towering over everyone on stage. His relish of the spiteful, spirited character is of the traditional panto sort, bringing a great amount of glee to the children of the audience in particular, who delight as every attempted prank against the oppressive headmistress is enacted. And McCann is wonderful as the peachy Miss Honey, fragile as a character who has also suffered, yet robust in voice, particularly in stirring delivery of the touching ballad ‘My Home’.
The dynamic energy of the show’s child performers is what impresses the most, especially given its ultimate display in the final ‘Revolting Children’ celebration of successful rebellion against the tyrannical Trunchbull, which Exodus Lale absolutely owns. Similarly, as naughty Nigel, Alfie Jamieson steals many scenes. On opening night, Venice Harris makes for a memorable Matilda, cheeky (#inagoodway) as she speaks up with ‘that’s not right’. Her commitment to the weighty role (that she shares with Izellah Connelly, Annabella Cowley and Eva Murawski) is absolute, even through the wild standing ovation that follows her performance.
This is, however, composer/lyricist Tim Minchin’s show and his unforgettable melodies and his wicked lyrical wit are what raise it to the heights of the modern musical cannon. And as if his appearance on the red carpet for Brisbane’s opening night is not enough, to see him in a special curtain call with the standby cast, makes an already magical experience just that little more special.
“Matilda The Musical” is full of fun and wicked charm, balanced with moments of melancholy and pathos in which you could ‘hear a flea burp’. Its ode to the power of story is so central to the wonder at the core of childhood experience that it cannot be anything but glorious, for children and adults alike. Rarely do shows live up the hype in such entirety, but in this case, it experience is so complete in its magic that whether you are new to the show or a repeat audience member, you cannot leave without a face full of smile and a heart full of feels.