Stage Door Review

London, GBR: Matilda the Musical

Jun 22, 2012

✭✭✭✭✭

music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, book by Dennis Kelly, directed by Matthew Warchus

Royal Shakespeare Company, Cambridge Theatre

November 24, 2011-booking to October 20, 2019

“Even If You’re Little You Can Do A Lot”

If you are looking for a musical in London that fully lives up to the phrase “fun for the whole family”, then Matilda the Musical is your top choice. Superficially, Matilda may seem similar to the better-known Billy Elliot. Both feature children in the title roles, both children have to overcome families opposed to their innermost desires and both children succeed despite great obstacles. Yet, Billy Elliot is really a musical for adults, as is evident in its language and emphasis on politics, that happens to focus on a child, whereas Matilda is fundamentally a musical with a fairy-tale structure written for and starring children with a high level of satire to provide appeal for adults.

Your experience of Matilda begins when you enter the Cambridge Theatre at Seven Dials and see what looks like an explosion of giant Scrabble tiles frozen in mid-blast around the proscenium and out past the first box seats. Rob Howell’s set and his subsequent plays with letters and giant wooden tiles already suggests the high level of ingenuity and wit that will characterize the whole production.

Based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book Matilda of 1988, the story begins before Matilda is even born. Her incredibly stupid mother Mrs. Wormwood (the hilariously vulgar Josie Walker) has gone to the doctor because she is afraid she has grown fat, only to discover to her horror that she is pregnant and thus will have to miss the amateur ballroom dance competition she has been training for. Matilda’s equally incredible stupid father Mr. Wormwood (Steve Furst, an expert at comic timing and at appearing totally clueless) looks at the infant Matilda and when he can’t find her “thingie” can’t figure out what sex she is. He continues to call her “son”, “boy” and “lad” throughout the show.

Set in the period just before personal computers invaded every aspect of human life, Dahl’s story is a satire of a world grown dumb and unimaginative through its neglect of reading. Mr. Wormwood proudly proclaims that all he needs to know he got from watching telly and that “The bigger the telly the smarter the man”. Mrs. Wormwood has learned, for example, that Russians, or perhaps raccoons, are nocturnal. Matilda’s semisyllablic older brother Michael (Peter Howe) wears a sweatshirt marked “Genius”, does nothing but watch telly, including test patterns, and can only put one word together – “telly”. Now, of course, with nearly everyone people fixated on personal electronic devices, Dahl’s satire has become even more trenchant.  

According to Mrs. Wormwood, girls of Matilda’s age are supposed to concentrate on their hair and makeup, but much to her parents’ consternation, Matilda loves reading. Her one oasis from her family’s constant criticism is the local library. There the librarian Mrs. Phelps (played with sympathy and enthusiasm by Melanie La Barrie) encourages Matilda not only to read but to make up her own stories. When Matilda sees Miss Honey, one of her future teachers, at the library, she thinks things may not be so bad at school.

In fact, they are very bad. All the first formers are met at the gate of Crushem Hall by the older children (played by adults) who are itching to beat up the youngsters. Miss Honey (in a lovely performance by Haley Flaherty) lives up to her name and is very sweet and meek, but any good she tries to do, especially in trying to move Matilda to a level more in tune with her intelligence, is shot down by the school’s fanatical headmistress Miss Trunchbull (played in exuberant pantomime style by the male actor Bertie Carvel), whose main qualification for running the school seems to have been her winning a prize at the hammer-throw. Trunchbull’s view of schooling is that it is not that it is meant to impart a love of learning but to inculcate blind obedience to authority.

The musical becomes more fairy-tale-like as it proceeds with several unusual twists. Miss Honey, not Matilda, turns out to be the damsel in distress, and Matilda takes on the role of her knight in shining armour. Matilda shows her own basic goodness in even saving her despicable family from ruin. Her intelligence is so great that it passes from the normal to the paranormal giving her the power of telekinesis. The show ends in a triumphant celebration of good over evil, kindness over brutality, intelligence over stupidity.

Composer and lyricist Tim Minchin has written a delightful score and delectably witty lyrics for the musical. The confrontation between the older and younger children at the gate to Crushem Hall includes the names for all 26 letters of the alphabet buried cleverly in lyrics. “When I Grow Up”, the children’s chorus as they swing on swings over the audience may well become a standard as will the song “My House” given to the downtrodden Miss Honey about her humble home. “Loud”, Mrs. Wormwood’s song espousing her strategy in dealing with the know-it-alls of the world is great fun. The hip-hop-influenced song “Revolting Children” about youthful rebellion led by Matilda’s put-upon classmate Bruce (Callum Henderson), closes the show in high spirits.

The chorus of children – quadruple cast in the case of Matilda and Bruce, triple cast in the case of the other seven – are amazing. Triple-threats all in singing, dancing and acting, they make you feel the future of British musicals is in expert hands. Cleo Demetriou, the Matilda I saw, is wonderfully expressive completely devoid of the smart-alecky tone that American shows favour in child actors. She makes Matilda’s stories to Mrs. Phelps clearly reflect her emotions about her family that she refuses to acknowledge openly.

Bertie Carvel is a marvel as Miss Trunchbull. There are many female villains in children’s stories but Carvel makes Trunchbull unique by strongly suggesting that her tyranny and emphasis on discipline derives from a personal sense of paranoia. The way he manages to mingle Trunchbull’s combination of fear and loathing of children is the sign of a master of comic acting at work.

Matilda won seven 2012 Oliver Awards including Best New Musical, Best Director, Best Actor in a Musical (for Bertie Carvel) and Best Actress in a Musical (for the four Matildas). This is a case where such an abundance of awards is fully justified. This is one new musical that I would happily see again, preferable at a matinee when there would be a greater percentage of children in the audience. This is a great introduction to theatre for children and a treat for their accompanying adults.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive. The present cast is: Craige Els as Miss Trunchbull, Rebecca Thornhill (Mrs Wormwood ), Michael Begley (Mr Wormwood), Joshua Wyatt (Michael Wormwood), Lisa Davina Phillip (Mrs Phelps), Miria Parvin (Miss Honey).

Photo: (top) Chorus in “When I Grow Up”; (bottom) Cleo Demetriou and Bertie Carvel. ©2010 RSC; © 2011 Manuel Harlan.

For tickets, visit www.matildathemusical.com.