Matilda The Musical
Cambridge Theatre, London
From November 24, 2011
I know it is perhaps sacrilegious of me as both English teacher and former child, but I’ve never be a huge “Matilda” fan. Even so, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the musical’s magical spectacle. From first glimpse of the Cambridge Theatre’s stage, the impressive set is apparent, setting the scene for the story’s fantastical world.
The scale is both impressive and compelling as it brings to life Roald Dahl story illustrations and inventively provides a platform for players’ interactions. Everything is boxes and squares and books, with pieces seamlessly gliding into place to enable constant action. The choreography is energetic and incredibly precise, such as in ‘School Song’ when the cast add blocks to the set, which are climbed on in time to the corresponding words in the lyrics. Costumes also add to the fun and colour, creating picture book realisations that suit the storytelling style. Indeed, this is a colourful and cartoonish show, guaranteed to engage children and adults alike with its message that everybody needs to be a little bit naughty sometimes.
The Royal Shakespeare Company production is, basically, a timeless morality play of a feisty and intelligent (she reads everything from Dickens to Dostoevsky) young girl, Matilda Wormwood, who overcomes monstrous, negligent parents and a tyrannical head teacher through her rebellion, leadership and supernatural telekinetic and psychic powers. She does so with support from her lovely (but tragic) teacher Miss Honey (Haley Flaherty). Matilda escapes the reality of her world by telling stories and it is in these segments that the show drags, for sometimes too much is just too much.
Performances are appropriately panto-esque, with over-the-top characterisation and dramatic moments. Indeed, the physical humour from the bitter and abusive Headmistress Miss Trunchball (Craige Els) serves as a particular highlight. Revolting as they might be, the children of the cast sure can sing. But as the titular Matilda, Lottie Sicilia is a little more gangster than genius, precociously outspoken, rather than the sensible and quiet girl of the novel.
Regardless, I was there for the Minchin. And his distinctive irreverent whimsy is certainly evident in the tunes. Yet, apart from the lingering sentimentality of ‘When I Grow Up’, which is delightfully performed from a set of swings, there are no standout melodies. Ultimately, however, this is a show about story. Matilda survives through her stories and words clearly dominate (and not just from the set’s brightly coloured letter blocks). And if it serves to welcome children to either the worlds of theatre or reading, then it is, indeed, wonderful.