I’ve posted before about my love of Roald Dahl. He wrote brillantly about what it is to be a child, free to explore and discover, free to experience shocks, frights, and bad things, free to be naughty, free to learn, free to be. Many of his characters have to overcome huge difficulties and dangers that are almost always thrown in their way by adults; adults who often pose both a physical and emotional threat, often a real danger.
Matilda Wormwood is no exception. She’s a child ignored and humiliated by her parents, and placed in a school-cum-prison ruled by the tyrannical Miss Trunchbull. She’s a child with exceptional talents, spotted by the sweet and nurturing Miss Honey, but if only she knew how to use them…
The musical adaptation by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin, staged by the RSC, is astonishing. It’s wonderfully faithful to the spirit of Roald Dahl, in fact I’d venture to say Mr Dahl would love the darkness, cleverness and tremendous emotional scope of the musical adaptation. Perhaps controversially, I reckon Matilda – A Musical improves on the original book.
The production is breathtaking. Matthew Warcus directs with the assured authority of a stage veteran, but every element is fantastic. The pace almost never lets up, and the transformations from The Wormwood’s front room to the school playground or classroom to Matilda’s bedroom to the library are effortless. The lighting, sound design, and use of the stage is simply wonderful, making the show a visual treat.
The performances are uniformly excellent. More than half the cast are children, with three cast in each part. We saw Adrianna Bertola in the title role: her stage presence, confidence and emotional range is almost mind-blowing. Many of the children attend Theatre Schools and I had to keep muttering to myself ‘please don’t let them end up on X-Factor’… All the children get comic moments of their own and they’re all great.
Adults in Dahl books are often grotesque, but here they’re all played with wonderful humour and stay the right side of caricature. Paul Kaye and Josie Waller excel as Matilda’s parents, bringing slapstick straight out of the novel to life.
Spoiler / Practical tip… if you do see this make sure you’re in your seat for the second half with plenty of time, as Mr Wormwood makes an ‘interval announcement’ that uses Paul Kaye’s stand-up comedic talents to the full…
Lauren Ward is a near-perfect Miss Honey as she emerges from her own troubled existence as the ideal, indeed only partner for Matilda. However, if it’s possible to steal this show, Bertie Carvel does with his portrayal of Miss Trunchbull. Grotesque, comic, genuinely terrifying (my 5 year-old knows and loves the story but did not like her!), he’s a joy to watch.
The songs are all written by Tim Minchin, best known for his often very barbed, adult-themed material. This performance on the Jonathan Ross Show gives you an idea. He’s (IMHO) insanely talented, but not necessarily an obvious choice for a family musical, with his complex lyrics, rhymes and themes. Until you stop and think for a moment about Roald Dahl – wordplay almost beyond compare, larger-than-life characters, often surreal plots.
The music is outstanding, there isn’t a weak song in the show. The orchestrations are witty. The children more than cope with his demands: the opening number ‘Miracle’ features them in a fairly open attack on parental attitudes to ‘their special little soldiers’, where it becomes ‘de rigeur for miracles these days’. I wonder how the actual parents of these wonderfully talented children felt on seeing the song for the first time…
Ensemble pieces like ‘School Song’, ‘Bruce’, ‘When I Grow Up’ and ‘Revolting Children’ are fantastically intricate, but performed and staged in inspiring style. Lauren Ward has lovely songs in ‘This Little Girl’ and ‘My House’ that are beautifully moving. In ‘The Smell of Rebellion’ Bertie Carvel imbues Miss Trunchbull with at least a little of the spirit of Frank N Furter… And Matilda has three solo songs of her own, of which ‘I’m Here’ had this Father in absolute pieces (more of which later).
The Dahl book has a number of key scenes and set-pieces that simply must be in any adaptation. They’re almost all hyper-real, much easier to write than stage, but they’re all pulled off brilliantly. Mr Wormwood’s hair, the pigtail hammer-throw, Bruce Bogtrotter’s cake, moving the cup, the writing on the board are all there and their magic simply adds to the joy of the show. But Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin have added details and devices, and used songs to improve on the original book. Rudolpho is a new character with only a couple of appearances, but he helps contrast the loud chaos of the Wormwood household with Matilda’s own inner Quiet. The staging brings the spirit of the novel to life wonderfully, Miss Honey’s song ‘Pathetic’ is a fantastic introduction to her own personal turmoil and Miss Trunchbull’s past as a Hammer Thrower comes alive in her first scene, and her monstrosity with the chilling line ‘I’ve been busy’ (you’ll know what I mean).
Best of all for me is the way Miss Honey and Matilda’s stories are intertwined with the tale of The Escapologist and The Acrobat throughout the show. This had me in tears more than once, and is a wonderful adaptation that also includes a beautiful puppetry sequence.
Matilda is about the importance of loving your child, about the importance of children and how adults often neglect, misunderstand and mistreat them. It’s brought to life in so many wonderful ways in this musical through every element of the production. The Courtyard Theatre in Stratford is the perfect venue for the show, but this show deserves to run and run and run. Dahl should be pretty much compulsary reading in every school and home, and this production deserves to be a compulsary supplement to the books. If I never see another show this will live with me forever.