Few recent musicals have been as critically successful as the RSC’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic Matilda. Last year, it took home seven prizes to break the record for the most Olivier Awards won (a feat equalled at this year’s ceremony by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) and, following a successful Broadway opening, the show also scooped four awards at this year’s Tonys.
The story of an extraordinary little girl born into a family that doesn’t appreciate her, Matilda is probably one of the best-known of Roald Dahl’s works. Dahl was a brilliant children’s writer because he was a wonderfully witty wordsmith who at the same time also had a perfect understanding of children. This spirit lives on in the musical’s ingenious book and lyrics (created by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin respectively) which cannot fail to enchant. The musical’s main themes – right and wrong, fairness, empowerment and love – are ones which captivate all children (as well as a fair few adults) and are shared with the audience with a clarity that only a child’s gaze can offer. “Even if you’re little, you can do a lot. You mustn’t let a little thing like little stop you,” sings Matilda – well, quite.
Chris Nightingale’s orchestrations of Minchin’s music are simply excellent. The music is generally bright and uplifting, changing perfectly when needed to reflect Miss Trunchbull’s sinister actions and back-story. Two numbers (“Miracle” and “Loud) are a little too busy for my taste – densely-packed words come thick and fast, making it difficult to pick out some lines – but are still largely enjoyable. The other songs ranged from very good to outstanding, my favourite being the beautiful performance of “My House” by Lara Denning (cover Miss Honey).
The energy of the cast’s performance made it clear that they love and respect the show every bit as much as audiences do. Cristina Fray’s Matilda was, without a doubt, the most assured performance I’ve ever seen from a child actor and the standard from the rest of the cast was equally high. I’ve made no secret of my enormous respect for understudies and am delighted to say that the performance of Matilda that I saw has only made me even more stubborn on this point. Maria Lawson (cover Mrs Phelps) was simply wonderful to watch as she sat enraptured listening to Matilda tell her story and, as mentioned above, Denning’s Miss Honey was superb. It possibly goes without saying that my favourite character was the outrageously wicked and gloriously larger-than-life Miss Trunchbull, covered to hilarious effect by Charles Brunton.
A large number of the show’s awards have been presented to the show’s creative team and it is easy to see why. Hugh Vanstone’s immersive lighting is quite probably the best I’ve ever seen and Rob Howell’s set design is not only beautiful but also magical in its functionality. Excellent illusions designed by Paul Kieve and imaginative choreography by Peter Darling further complement the story unfolding on stage, which is supported as well by those behind the curtain as it is by the actors in front of it.
One final thing that I loved about the show was that it is a rare example of a musical with a stronger second act. The show was strong before the interval but the portion which came after it was as close to perfect as any show I’ve seen. So many pieces suffer from pacing issues or a loss of momentum following the break and it was both a relief and a delight that there wasn’t a hint of these problems to be seen. The script went from strength to strength as time went on – often funny, sometimes touching and always entertaining.
This show is an utter triumph. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
10/10 – Matilda is simply wonderful and should appeal to audience members of all ages.
Matilda is playing at The Cambridge Theatre, London and is currently booking to May 2014. Unless attempting to take advantage of the offer below, advance booking is strongly advised.
Ticketing Tip: 16 £5 tickets for 16-25 year olds are available from The Cambridge Theatre box office from 10am on the day of the performance.