Original review for the Reviews Hub
Mischief, magic, and as much charm as the original tale
‘Just because I find myself in this story, it doesn’t mean that everything is written for me’: ah, the wisdom of children – the whimsical wonder and childlike delight that children can’t wait to outgrow and adults wish for once again is the foundation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s literature. With all of Dahl’s wisdom and a little childlike wonder, Matilda the Musical is Denis Kelly’s delightful adaptation of Dahl’s Matilda, the wisest little worm of all.
A precocious child prodigy flipping through Dickens and Dostoevsky at five years old, Matilda is desperate to grow up and escape from a family – coiffed and vociferous in fantastic performances from Sebastien Torkia and Rebecca Thornhill – that prefer the sedative effects of television to the fanciful dance of their daughter’s fairy tales. Escaping to the autocratic tutelage of Crunchem Hall, Matilda is taught the toughest class of all: even teachers, like Carly Thoms’s ‘pathetic’ and empathetic Miss Honey, can’t escape from ‘fighting the creatures that you have fight each night’, even if they’re all grown up, and particularly if that creature is the terrifying Trunchball. Played as a pantomime dame – or demogorgon – with delicious diction and Olympic physicality by Elliot Harper, the disciplinarian dictator officiates with a fist as iron-like as Crunchem Hall’s gothic gates and a face as frightening as the notorious chokey.
With an antagonist as frighteningly authoritarian – and inelegant – as this, and eager to grow up as the author of her narrative, it’s natural that Matilda has to be ‘a little bit naughty’. From articulate critiques to telekinetic taunting, the title character is a titanic part for a young actress, and Olivia Juno Cleverly is practically perfect. Naughty and naïve, Cleverly is a natural narrator, effortlessly engaging us – and Michelle Chantelle Hopewell’s eager and earnest Miss Phelps – in the tall tale of the escapologist and the circus performer crucial to the musical’s finale, and outclassing all in her Act I call-to-action, ‘Naughty’.
All of Cleverly’s fellow scallywags are frightfully wily and wonderfully true-to-life, yet fantastically disciplined in Peter Darling’s playful and uplifting choreography, particularly in the nostalgic sweetness of ‘When I Grow Up’ as they soar out singing on swings suspended from the flies. And, with Paul Kieve’s effects, from girls catapulted by their pigtails to leeches creeping up an ogreish leg, there’s lots of theatrical magic in the trickery.
The eclectic score from Tim Minchin is alive with lyrical trickery and intellect that adapts wonderfully from the wisdom of Dahl’s writing – with a few of his ‘Revolting Rhymes’ in there, too – and Matthew Warchus’s lively direction is woven effortlessly into Rob Howell’s delightful designs. From the scattering of patterned ligneous pieces across the proscenium, as if they’ve fallen from the paragraphs of a storybook’s pages, to the pack of colourful scooters in the finale, the stage is a school playground for children and grown-ups alike, with its didactic potential particularly playful in the ‘School Song’, which sees the script, set, staging and Hugh Vanstone’s colourful lighting come together to teach the A-Z of Crunchem’s treacherous schooling (‘why’ treacherous? ‘Just you wait for phys-ed!’).
With mischief, maggots, and as much charm as the original tale, Matilda the Musical is magic for all ages, even if you’re all grown up.