Theatre review: Matilda at the RSC

With music and lyrics by Tim Minchin

Roald Dahl’s Matilda seems to be the musical Tim Minchin was born to write; an impishly playful comedy about the triumph of curiosity and intelligence over boorishness and ignorance.

And, my, has he done the original proud. The new version he’s scored for the Royal Shakespeare Company perfectly captures Dahl’s mischievous spirit and subversive wit; while barnstorming performances and ingenious design elevate this vibrant production into a resoundingly triumphant family hit.

While Minchin wrote the music and the lyrics, the book is by Dennis Kelly -– who has comedy kudos of his own as co-writer on Sharon Horgan’s wonderful Pulling, and matches the musical comic’s cheeky humour in the spoken dialogue. The pair of them had the finest source material, of course, but their adaptation has a vivacious life of its own.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Matilda is the unwanted child of Mr and Mrs Wormwood, who see her as an inconvenience to their lives as dodgy used-car salesman and garish ballroom dancer. They bombard her with insults and see her love of books as a perversion, so send her to the bleak Crunchem Hall school, under the charge of the indomitably brutal Miss Trunchball, to have such fanciful notions knocked out of her. Yes, this is a jolly musical about the mental abuse of young children…

The role of Matilda, stoic under the maltreatment and wise beyond her years – not just a timid bookworm, is hugely demanding, requiring an almost constant presence on stage. A rotating cast of three young actors share each children’s part, but Kerry Ingram, who sang, danced and acted her way through the lead role on opening night, is a fantastic presence, full of star quality despite her young years.

Bertie Carvell is like an evil Alastair Sim as the butch Miss Trunchball, creating a deliciously monstrous villain. In contrast Lauren Ward is quietly sympathetic as the softly-spoken Miss Honey, one of the few grown-ups to appreciate Matilda’s wisdom. Paul Kaye – another Pulling graduate but probably still most associated with Dennis Pennis – spivvs it up flamboyantly as Mr Wormwood.

Minchin’s sensibilities are a contsant, complementing Dahl’s rather than replacing them. In which other musical ostensibly aimed at children would you hear lyrics referring both to a ‘smarting front bottom’ and the special theory of relativity?

The opening overture, Miracle, sets the pace and the energy wonderfully; a tightly choreographed celebration of precious parents and precocious children to contrast with Matilda’s misery. School Song is witty and intelligent, cunningly incorporating every letter of the alphabet through such wordplay as ‘trage-DEE’.

Minchin’s lyrics are flourished with this sort of wry humour that’s served him so well on the comedy circuit. For example, Josie Walker, as the gloriously garish Mrs Wormwood, flaunts her ignorance by singing ‘it doesn’t matter if you don’t know nowt/as long as you say it with clout’. Amid the big numbers are some tender ballads such as My House, which shows Ward off as a wonderfully emotive singer, but ebullient boisterousness is the overwhelming motif. The triumphant Revolting Children and the charming naïve When I Grow Up are other highlights

Proceedings bundle along a quite a pace. Although more than two-and-half hours including interval might seem daunting for a family night out, it flies by. The young audience, so chatty and lively in the foyer, are spellbound into silence once the lights go down, even in the quieter moments when the tone turns to sadness. And it’s not just the children who are so captivated.

Designer Rob Howell has done more than his fair contribution to that. Though he can’t hope to replicate the style of Quentin Blake, who so distinctively illustrated the original book, the set here has a magic of its own, dozens of letter blocks tumbling towards a stage which is constantly revealing secrets, in concert with the perpetually lively choreography.

Such showbiz sparkle means it’s hard to imagine anyone, of any age, who wouldn’t be charmed and entertained by this spirited production… except perhaps those rude and ignorant Wormwood parents.

Review by: Steve Bennett

Published: 10 Dec 2010

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