“Matilda the Musical”: Breeding mini-Minchins by Matilda Dixon-Smith

Posted on December 9, 2011


My overpowering vanity and theatre nerdiness made it impossible to pass up the opportunity to see a musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Readers, readers, my name is thetitle of this show. I was expecting a lot from this experience.

The usher had the good sense to realise how important it was for me: “Ah, seat O14, just to the right…MATILDA!!!” So, apparently, did the line of people waiting behind; his comment was met with titters all round. A couple of kids sitting in front of me even turned around to goggle at the other Matilda. Thank goodness seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda the Musical was a sincerely special experience, so all the embarrassment was worth it.

Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Matilda the Musical” is showing at the Cambridge Theatre in London.

The show is based on Roald Dahl’s classic novella about a gifted little girl who is horribly mistreated by her ridiculous family and draconian headmistress. The Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned Dennis Kelly to write the book and Australia’s own consummate comedian/songwriter Tim Minchin for the music and lyrics. Wild-haired, barefoot Minchin seems the ideal choice to set Dahl’s twisted tale to music. The show certainly was quite unlike any musical theatre I’ve seen in a while.

Minchin working with some of the “Matildas”: Breeding mini-Minchins.

Combining Minchin’s talents with Kelly’s supreme understanding of the text, and his creative foresight in adding ‘prophetic storyteller’ to Matilda’s many talents seems to have worked. This new adaptation stretches Dahl’s beloved story further and (if possible) bestows upon it even more depth and wonder.

Minchin and Dennis Kelly.

From the moment an impish child popped out from behind a birthday cake, proclaiming “My mummy says I’m a miracle”, it was clear they had hit the mark square on. The characters—sweet, stammering Ms Honey, the vile Mr and Mrs Wormwood—have been redrawn with Quentin Blake’s wonderfully spiky illustrations in mind. Paul Kaye was especially compelling as the buffoonish Mr Wormwood, who obstinately refuses to acknowledge Matilda’s gender, preferring to call her “boy”.

The Wormwood family, L-R: Paul Kaye, Josie Walker and Peter Howe.

Bertie Cavill’s portrayal (in drag) of the villainous Agatha Trunchbull is marvellous. He manages to make her frightening and ludicrous all at once. Perhaps most impressive is that he exhibits a feminine quality, which contributes markedly more to her terror than Dahl’s depiction of resolute masculinity.

Bertie Carvell, perhaps not looking so masculine, as Agatha Trunchbull.

Musicals with children are a sore point for me. There’s nothing worse (in my opinion) than a scratchy, off-pitch rendition of “Tomorrow”, “Where Is Love?” or “Castle on a Cloud”. These kids, thankfully, were a delight. Perhaps because they are led by the admirable Matilda (played by Kerry Ingram when I saw it), the childrens’ company traverses the danger of being obnoxious with great ease. Lavender won the audience with her newt monologue but I found a favourite in Bruce Bogtrotter, played boldly (and with the ideal level of cheek) by James Beesley.

The young ensemble, singing the adorable “When I Grow Up”.

The set was a hit, designed with precision and ingenuity. Comprising dozens of giant scrabble tiles and alphabet building blocks (the scrabble tiles spreading up the walls and across the ceiling) the audience had fun spelling out hidden words like scarf, heart, and phenomenon. It was used to particular effect in the alphabetically-rhythmic “School Song”.

The show hinges on having a Matilda with the ability to display (at turns) mischievousness, vulnerability, wit and bravery. Ingram was compelling, and perfectly precocious. She was also pitch-perfect and delivered lines extremely well. A portion of her success as a lead is down to Minchin, who writes songs for children that ring with adult truth. Her main solo, “Naughty”, is charming.

Kerry Ingram as Matilda.

In fact the success of the show as a whole seems to be that, though Minchin and Kelly’s writing is fun, it is ultimately a grown-up work. They seem to have avoided patronising their audience at all costs. This element ties the show back to Dahl; his stories for children were always clever, dark and bizarre (in the best sense).

Unfortunately, I took issue with the clarity of sound. Minchin’s propensity for rhyming and wordplay (delivered at break-neck speed) may suit Dahl’s story, but having a largely prepubescent ensemble singing this way meant that much of the excellent lyric was lost. The band was also quite loud, which didn’t help matters. It was, however, a small woe in an ultimately well-executed production.

The best part of  Matthew Warchus’ brilliant direction has to be his ensemble. With both adults and children (the adults played various characters, including the “big kids” at Crunchem Hall) they were a wild bunch; well-choreographed and invaluable to the show’s unceasing energy.

The combined adult/kids’ company performing an energetic number.

I saw Matilda at a mid-week matinee—an experience I would recommend as it situated me amongst the best possible audience. I had digs with children as young as three, teetering on their booster seats, elderly couples (the matinee session’s life blood), and everyone in between. Every face was beaming with content or crinkled with satisfied nostalgia as I exited at the show’s conclusion. The true magic of Kelly, Minchin and Warchus’ collaboration appears to be its ability to transgress boundaries of age and appeal to everyone.

I snorted with laughter, shed a comforting tear or two, and left the theatre humming the superb finale, “When I Grow Up”. I count that as an absolute success. Londoners, visitors to London, indeed anyone who happens to come across Matilda the Musical, I would consider you a “twit”, a “maggot”, or a “creep” if you were to miss this joyous production.

A fun number – the ensemble sings “Revolting Children”, led by Bruce Bogtrotter:

Matilda Dixon-Smith is You’re Dripping Egg’s editor-in-chief and supreme musical nut. For more of her thoughts on musical theatre, why not check out her reviews of “The Musical of Musicals: The Musical” or “Curtains”.

Matilda saw “Matilda the Musical” at the Cambridge Theatre in London on Wednesday 30th November, 2011. For more details about the performances, click here.

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