Matilda the Musical

Matilda the Musical
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Later this year, Matilda the Musical will celebrate its 8th anniversary in the West End; the show officially opened at the Cambridge Theatre in November 2011, after transferring from the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre after its world première in 2010, and later picked up seven Olivier Awards – this is still the largest haul by a musical (tying with Hamilton since 2018). Since then it has spawned multiple productions, including a stint on Broadway and a UK & Ireland tour which is currently in progress. Dennis Kelly (book) and Tim Minchin’s (music & lyrics) musical is based on the well-loved Roald Dahl story about a precocious and daring young girl.

Unlike other children, described by their parents as “miracles”, Matilda is the unwanted and unloved younger daughter of Mr & Mrs Wormwood. She spends most of her time at the library, devouring the classics, until she’s old enough to start school; Matilda’s teacher, Miss Honey, is immediately struck by her extraordinary intelligence and tries to get her moved to the top class. Miss Trunchbull – the school’s imposing headmistress – is distinctly unimpressed with this idea, leaving Miss Honey determined to find more challenging work for Matilda to do alongside her classmates. She’ll have to do it without the support of Matilda’s parents, however, as Mrs Wormwood is more interested in her dance rehearsals with Rudolpho – and Mr Wormwood is in the middle of a dodgy car deal with a group of Russians…

With a running time of approximately 2.5 hours (including an interval), there is scope for the show to fill out certain areas of the story; during her time at the library, Matilda comes up with a story about an escapologist and his acrobat wife, filling in librarian Mrs Phelps with the latest instalment each time she visits. Mrs Wormwood’s dancing career and the exact nature of Mr Wormwood’s business deals are also added in & expanded upon, plus there’s more of an opportunity to show the terrifying nature of school life at Crunchem Hall.

Matilda the Musical
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

It’s not surprising that Rob Howell took away the Olivier Award for Best Set Design; when you first enter the auditorium you’re greeted with a large set of Scrabble-like tiles escaping from the performance space, a few of them spelling out some of the key words from the show – which gives you something to puzzle out while you wait for it to begin! From then on there are lots of little treats in store, as desks appear & disappear, swings are swung on, and gym kit is produced for one of Miss Trunchbull’s Phys. Ed. classes. Matthew Warchus’ direction is inventive & surprising, sending ripples of delight through the audience as the show is brought to them; whether it’s Miss Trunchbull making a grand exit through the middle aisle, student choirs popping up in the boxes, or Mr Wormwood picking on you for reading, it’s hard not to feel involved. Adding an extra sense of fun to proceedings is Peter Darling’s choreography, throwing up its own surprises along the way.

With a show such as this, there’s an incredible weight of expectation on young heads; Matilda herself is barely off the stage, and there are sizable roles for other children – such as Lavender, Nigel and (of course) Bruce Bogtrotter. At my performance, Zoe Simon was in the title role; she has a wonderfully strong singing voice, doing justice to Tim Minchin’s quirky & fun compositions, and finds strength in Matilda’s own journey. Isaac Wiles is definitely one to watch, giving everything he’s got as Bruce – and sending the audience into hysterics as he leads Revolting Children towards the end of the show.

Callum Train is as exuberant as you might expect as dancer Rudolpho, and Rob Compton & Marianne Benedict are as captivatingly foul as you could hope for as Mr & Mrs Wormwood, shouting down dissent from their daughter and getting themselves into trouble. Gina Beck is sweet but spirited as inspirational teacher Miss Honey, finding great humour in her character’s timidity. If your only point of reference for Miss Trunchbull is Roald Dahl’s original book (& your imagination), then you won’t be disappointed with her representation onstage; Simon Shorten took on the role when I saw it, demonstrating terrific stage presence and superlative comic instincts. A memorable performance, indeed!

Filled with the spirit of Roald Dahl from head to toe, it’s no wonder this musical has managed to stand its ground in the West End; it’s a sheer delight for adults & children alike, brimming with optimism and a clear sense of right & wrong. The ideal tonic for our modern world.

Matilda the Musical
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

My verdict? A modern classic, filled with Roald Dahl’s spirit and dusted with Tim Minchin’s musical magic – a must-see for young and old.

Rating: 5*

Matilda the Musical is at the Cambridge Theatre, currently booking until 31 January 2020. Tickets are available online or from the box office. Day seats costing £5 are available to 16-25 year olds.

Post courtesy of SeatPlan:

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