It must have been an exciting moment when this project was revealed to the team at the RSC as their next big thing. I bet everyone was jumping at the chance to be involved. Matilda has become a children’s classic and this musical is set to achieve the same. Everyone should celebrate that they are now booking until the 21st October 2012 and push for more; it deserves it. Want to know why? I'll tell you.
The stage itself looks magnificent; adorned all around, up and under with books and cutout letters it has the feel of a child’s imagination allowed to explode all over the place. The various walls that slide in and out and desks and platforms, slides and swings that appear and disappear only serve to amplify the enduring enjoyment of the diversity of imagination.
The whole play is fantastic. It has captured the feel of childhood perfectly where the mind takes a simple idea and makes it fantastical; the lasers that fly across the room when it comes time for the infamous Chokey to make an appearance is a prime example and works wonderfully. There isn’t a single moment that feels out of place in the script and the story progresses with dexterity and intelligence as Matilda tells her story to the librarian in conjunction with the development of her own story. They two marry naturally and not a moment is wasted or missed.
The music is supremely entertaining. I don’t think there’s a better fit for this project than Tim Minchin who has brought every iota of his comedic brilliance to this score while at the same time a maturity that moves us very deeply. It’s a wonderfully innocent score while at the same time being mischievous and passionate.
The cast were outstanding. Melanie La Barrie as Mrs Phelps the librarian was the voice of the audience on stage and was magnificent in the role; I laughed out loud almost every time she had something to say. The scenes with the acrobat and escapologist, played by Emily Shaw and Matthew Malthouse were spectacular and when they merged with the main story it felt right, which is a credit to the actors. The entirety of the supporting cast deserve critical appreciation for their efforts.
Lauren Ward’s Miss Honey is moving; effortlessly making the audience empathise with her situation and root for her against the seemingly indomitable odds. Matilda’s parents are largely responsible for these odds and Paul Kaye and Josie Walker bring everything they possibly can to the stage. Mixing some great physical comedy with an energy that I’m surprised could last for the full two and a half hours, Kaye in particular lights up the stage and creates an iconic character for himself. Their presence on stage is simultaneously something you want to rebel against while at the same time being immobilized by laughter at their ludicrous lives, costumes and everything about them, really.
Yet this is only one half of the cast. The RSC have always had a talent for bringing good child actors to the stage and here they have outdone themselves. Every child on the stage was confident and more than able to pull off both complex dance routines and songs as well as holding character. Particularly special are the performances from Bruce (played by Zachary Harris when I saw it) and, unsurprisingly and undeniably, Matilda herself (played by Cleo Demetriou). Matilda in particular was outstanding. All the performances showed maturity beyond belief, perhaps ironic when the show is all about childhood and imagination, and the queens of this must be those playing the lead role. The things that are achieved on this stage by these young talents are often things that one would have left to imagination but are undeniably real.
Having said how brilliant the cast were, and not wanting to undermine any of their achievements, I feel I must make special mention of Bertie Carvel whose rendition of Miss Trunchbull is nothing short of magical. Becoming the linchpin of the whole show he brings raucous laughter to the auditorium by simple appearing let alone letting loose with his comic charms. Switching with ease between intimidatingly scary and hilariously funny, he shows us exactly what that kind of drag role should be. His script and his music both support him but he takes full advantage of everything at his disposal and lifts the show to greatness.
The only things I would say in a critical way are that shining bright lights at the audience when their eyes aren’t prepared for them is rather painful and that if any of the front of house staff are reading, it’d be good if there was a more efficient routine for making sure people are in their seats in time for the lights coming up – it’s very distracting having people walking in front of the view, especially when you’re sitting close to the back.
This show celebrates play, fun and imagination, moving you from tears to roaring laughter and back again in moments and is far more than a show for children. It may be that but it is so much more, dragging the inner child out of everyone and entertaining the most fundamentally silly instincts in all of us. Unadulterated excellence; one of the best things you will ever see, certainly one of the best musicals any of us will ever see.
Written by Dennis Kelly; Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin; Directed by Matthew Warchus; At the Cambridge Theatre; Starring Tim Walton, Josie Walker, Paul Kaye, Peter Howe, Melanie La Barrie, Lauren Ward, Matthew Malthouse, Emily Shaw, Bertie Carvel, Gary Watson, Verity Bentham, Alistair Parker, Cleo Demetriou, Kerry Ingram, Sophia Kiely, Eleanor Worthington Cox, Ruby Bridle, Jemima Eaton, Ellie Simons, Jake Bailey, James Beesley, Zachary Harris; Runs from 25 October 11 - 21 October 12 (expect an extension on this, though).
John Ord (6/12/11)