Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Book by Dennis Kelly
Review by Clive Burton
How do you solve a problem like Matilda when you decide to bring to the musical stage the adventures and inner angst of Roald Dahl’s precociously-studious young heroine, a bookish clairvoyant with nascent kinetic powers, whose parents ignore her very existence and denigrate her overwhelming interest in learning? And a Head Mistress intent on bending every child in her care to her own sadistic will by constantly disciplining her classmates and cowing any teaching staff who dare to intervene?
The answer it would appear, is with some difficulty although the show’s inventive Director, Matthew Warchus, successfully overcomes many of the challenges of transferring the heady mix of plot, characters and outrageous situations from the page to the musical stage.
Judging from what has emerged from the recent out-of-London run of the RSC’s latest offering, the most obvious problems have been solved - often spectacularly - not least on the casting front. The eponymous Matilda (a role shared between four talented and very young actor/singers on different evenings) was played on Theatreworld’s press night by an other-worldly Kerry Ingram who brought considerable assurance and panache to the role, devouring knowledge like most kids of her age devour chocolate bars.
Emotionally abandoned by her heartless, uncomprehending, parents ( Paul Kaye as the spivvy Mr Wormwood and Josie Walker as Matilda’s chavvy chacha-ing mum each strike just the right note of pantomime-villainy)she seeks refuge in the words of authors as diverse as Dickens and Dostoevsky (whom she reads in the original Russian, thus providing a solution to a pivotal plot point later on).
At the heart of an always-impressive stage picture, Rob Howell’s glorious sets begin at the back of the stage as a towering library of books that transmogrifies in its journey up, into and around the auditorium into a series of giant alphabet building blocks that can be joined up to provide words relevant to the production: seeing how many you can identify is an education in itself!
With the help of a sympathetic teacher - Lauren Ward’s Miss Honey is every bit as sweet as her name suggests - Matilda is able to overcome the brutality of the school’s disciplinarian regime as personified by the formidable Miss Trunchbull (whose raucous charges make a fine fist of running this rugged harridan ragged).
Bertie Carvel’s masterful Trunchbull is a six-foot-plus, gently-spoken volcano of self-loathing who coruscatingly lights up the stage – or darkens it, depending on one’s sympathies - with her every appearance. This is no mere travesty role and a consummate Carvel palpably becomes a heartless, towering virago whose power is magnified through the very reasonableness of her demeanour, until eventually her life begins to unravel with far-reaching consequences for all concerned. Suffice it to say that there is an upbeat ending in store after the somewhat Grimm (as in Brothers) revelations that pepper this improbable morality tale.
Dahl’s hugely- popular book has already been made into a stellar film (and the new musical’s story is well handled by Dennis Kelly) but the real deal-breaker with musical theatre is to find an appropriate musical ‘voice’ for the show and here is where the prodigiously-talented Tim Minchin frequently fails to measure up to the task with melodies that obstinately refuse to soar and lyrics that remain obdurately earthbound.
But, by cleverly marketing the show as ‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda the musical’ RSC should ensure a plentiful supply of little bums on seats long after the pantomime season ends.
Theatre: Cambridge Theatre, Earlham Street, London WC2H 9HU
Tickets: 0844 412 4652 / www.matildathemusical.com
0844 412 4648
Running time: 2hrs 35mins including interval