Having attracted a slew of awards before it even opened in London (most recently Best Musical at the Evening Standard Awards), Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s Matilda arrives in the capital heavy with the weight of expectations. Luckily this fresh, innovative and enjoyable take on the classic Roald Dahl tale more than deserves the plaudits, and is that rare beast, a show that captivates both critics and children alike.
Fans of the book will find much to love in this adaptation, but the audience needs no familiarity with the source material to be swept along in the story of the bookish little girl who refuses to let her life be carved out by others. From the moment it opens, when a table propelled by tiny hands scuttles on stage to begin with a deliciously biting number about modern parenting, this marvellous musical is a whirl of inventiveness and energy that simply doesn’t put a foot wrong. Rob Howell’s clever, dazzling set is an interlocking puzzle of books and scrabble tiles stretching out beyond the stage, artfully conjuring Dahl (and illustrator Quentin Blake’s) world without resorting to slavish copying, and is used to full and often slightly nerve-wracking affect by Peter Darling’s daring choreography, which sees the cast clambering up and down school gates, dancing on moving desks and swinging over the audience.
The performances are universally strong, but Bertie Carvel’s evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull is a triumph: where it would have been easy to just go for over the top panto villain, Carvel manages to be both grotesque and subtle, and looks every inch the Dahl baddie. As Matilda’s neglectful parents, Paul Kaye and Josie Walker are suitably brash and crass: the latter’s Loud, an ode to showy stupidity, (accompanied by the superbly sleazy Gary Watson’s ‘Italian’ dancer Rudolpho) feels especially relevant in this post-Big Brother world. Less flashy than the villains but just as affecting, Melanie La Barrie’s sympathetic librarian brings a nice touch of warmth to the role, and Lauren Ward’s browbeaten abused but ultimately rebellious teacher Miss Honey manages to be appropriately nice without ever being insipid.
Of course any play about children stands or falls on its younger cast, and here Matilda really scores big. The show is rotating among three young casts and four Matildas to manage the demands of such a physical production, but children I saw were outstanding: likeable, cheeky and talented while managing to avoid the self-satisfied whiff of stage school that so often taints child performances, with Jemima Eaton’s Lavender and James Beesley’s Bruce particular standouts. As Matilda, Cleo Demetriou was astonishingly good: in a talk-heavy role that would be demanding enough for most adults, she truly brought the character to life, suitably sweet but never losing sight of the steel that runs through the damaged little girl who has determined in life that sometimes you ‘have to be a little bit naughty’ to get what you deserve. Even someone who on the whole thinks the place for children in theatre is at home with a babysitter (yes, that would be me) couldn’t fail to be charmed.
Tim Minchin’s songs are vibrant and catchy, but feel suitably Dahl-like in their ability to be pleasingly anarchic, scathing and sly (you have to love a lyricist who writes a song about giving birth that rhymes ‘cotton’ with ‘front bottom’). Director Matthew Warchus skillfully juggles the controlled chaos, never letting the action flag, but also giving the story time to breathe, so while the show is often riotously funny, it also has a genuine emotional punch. It bravely doesn’t dilute Dahl’s signature darkness – at its heart it is the tale of two abused and neglected children, even if one of them has now grown up – and is all the more compelling for that.