“My mummy says I’m a miracle”
This time last year Matilda was drawing attention in Stratford-upon-Avon, so much attention that it was only a matter of time before it was given a place in London’s West End. I have been anxious to see Matilda since its London arrival, always having an affinity for Roald Dahl, him being 70 years my predecessor to the very day and born just 20 miles from my hometown. Thankfully the RSC has reclaimed Matilda as a British classic, Dennis Kelly’s book is a much closer interpretation of the novel than the feature film and Tim Minchin’s melodies and intricately, eloquent lyrics sparkle with wit, charm and satire; at times reminiscent of Sondheim.
As you enter the theatre you are immediately entranced by Rob Howell’s set design, hundreds if not thousands of scrabble tiles of various shape, size and colour climb the walls and spill out into the auditorium. You’re instantly aware that you’re in for a magical evening.
Matilda is an unwanted child, born to ungrateful parents. Her extraordinary mental abilities catch the attention of everyone around her, some reply with disgust, others with awe. The role of Matilda is shared by four young girls, Sophia Kiely took the role the evening I attended and suited perfectly. It is nothing but a marvel to see a young child remember so much material and choreography. Eleanor handled the part extremely well, adding particular gusto during her confrontations with her parents and Miss Trunchbull, enchanting us and Mrs Phelps, the librarian, with her story-telling and captivating the audience with her solitary, book-stacked number ‘Quiet’.
Dahl’s classic ingredient, the adult villain, who in this story is the headmistress Miss Trunchbull, is expertly embodied by Bertie Carvel. I thought it only obvious to cast a male in this role and was slightly hesitant of the outcome but Carvel is perfection, from his constantly clawed hand and persistent salivation to his subtle movements and sharp focus. Carvel hasn’t wandered down the path of imitation, he has created a character, uniquely his own and lives it 100% without becoming caricature, adding intense authenticity to the role. We are given glimpses into Trunchbull’s subconscious and her desire to be adored and respected, culminating in a jaw-dropping, show-stopping Phys. Ed lesson I shall never forget.
Lauren Ward, as Miss Honey, is a new face for me although her credits are endless. The reserved and timid teacher shows absolute dedication to her children but wrestles with her own self-confidence and a past that is slowly unravelled. Ward is sweet and caring, leaving no doubt that she has the best intentions at heart and her 11 o’clock lament, ‘My House’, is powerfully moving and this is where Ward proves herself vocally.
Mr and Mrs Wormwood, Paul Kaye and Josie Walker, create the most outrageous pairing and balance each other well. Obviously the embodiment of Dahl’s belief in literary education and disdain for television, which I’m sure every parent could recognise a part of themselves, at one time or another, in the lazy twosome relying on the TV nanny. These characters border on pantomime, which is necessary for the subtle villainess Trunchbull to be genuinely feared.
A particular favourite of mine was the librarian Mrs Phelps (Melanie La Barrie), who encourages Matilda’s thirst for knowledge, not only with access to the entire library but also her humorous reliance on Matilda’s stories, like the next crucial instalment of a soap opera
All the children involved should be commended, they rarely leave the stage and are involved in many of the scene changes. Opening act one with their rousing ‘Miracle’ song, each claiming “My mummy says I’m a miracle”, adhering to Roald Dahl’s view that, “Some children are spoiled and it is not their fault, it is their parents”. The act two childhood anthem ‘When I Grow Up’ is already a new favourite song of mine (having downloaded the soundtrack as soon as I got home). They each execute complex choreography and their Spring Awakening send up, ‘Revolting Children’, is a tribute to their hard work and dedication. The adult ensemble are constantly reused as multiple characters and even as children, but with young people who are evidently capable it seems slightly unnecessary to dress the grown ups in school uniform. This youthful cast certainly proves that “If you’re little you can do a lot, you mustn’t let a little thing like little stop you”.
The piece has been precisely directed by Matthew Warchus and choreographed by Peter Darling. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design is superb, but as impressive as they were, I felt the lasers were out of the context with the show’s character. Rob Howell’s design is stunning, the segues into each new scene are seamless and the library bookshelves are beautifully constructed. In comparison to The Courtyard Theatre it is easy to understand why some may think the story gets lost in the Cambridge, but sitting in the front row I couldn’t have felt more involved.
It is an absolute joy to see a new musical so well received without the necessity of celebrity casting. Let’s hope that this is the foundation of things to come in London’s West End.
The first child-centric, British musical since Billy Elliot and if that is anything to go by here’s hoping Matilda will have a very long and splendiferous life.
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Cambridge Theatre, London, WC2.
8 day seats are released at 10am for each performance at £5 for 16-25 year olds.