Matilda the Musical

Roald Dahl’s 1988 book Matilda is a dark romp that charts a small girl’s triumph over unloving, cruel parents and a terrifying headmistress by means of some rather extraordinary psychokinetic powers that make the little Matilda Wormwood of the title an exceptional young girl.

Matilda the Musical, directed by Matthew Warchus, lives right up to the novel, breathing three-dimensional life into its characters.  Matilda was played by Sophia Kiely on the night I was watching with a deftness to match the adults in the show.  Confident enough to command the stage and hold an audience Kiely never fell into the stage school trap of turning saccharine or cutesy and with Kelly’s writing it would be pretty impossible.   All of Matilda’s troubles are confronted head on in a sharp tongued script that reveals the extent of her loneliness with no cotton wool couching in sight and yet the ultimate message is distinctly positive: fantasy can become reality (well, it can for Matilda).

Matilda’s parents, repulsed by their daughter who prefers the library and its books to their beloved “telly”, are played by Paul Kaye and Josie Walker.  Kaye’s Mr. Wormwood is a Quentin Blake illustration in human form (albeit skewed perhaps by a Tim Burton-esque dementia), a superbly repellant spiv who creeps and lurches across the stage as he loathes his daughter with increasingly vocal disdain.  Thus the tone is set for the adult performances, gloriously fun, always knowingly near the mark and exactly the right side of panto – this is the RSC after all.

One exception, however, very nearly steals the show: RADA trained Bertie Carvel’s Miss Agatha Trunchbull.  Carvel transforms entirely into the sadistic headmistress by means of a subtly nuanced performance at once terrifying and laugh out loud funny, all softly spoken menace, heaving bosom and Olympic proportions.  Trunchbull is seared into the audience’s memory during a stand out physical education scene that reaches its climax as she forward flips over a gym horse in a frenzied demonstration of athletic prowess.  Mr. Carvel’s evident empathy with and understanding of this well known literary monster is testament to his talent and, in a show that is dynamic, surreal and enormous fun, is something particularly exciting to behold.

The intricate set is yet another marvel, designed by Rob Howell, and is put to full use during a schoolyard musical number when choreographer Peter Darling seems to have channeled Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock.  Initially the adult dancers, playing older pupils, jar a little in their scaled up school uniforms, looming over Matilda and her class mates.  But quite quickly they come into their own and suddenly it works.  Remember back to when you were at school and the older pupils always seemed so much bigger, so much more like adults?  Well, in Matilda the Musical they are played by adults and it ends up making perfect sense.

And that’s the secret of this show.  Rooted by Tim Minchin’s quirky, witty lyrics and perfectly acceptable music as well as eye-popping production values, the company is so strong, so well cast (bar a weak Lauren Ward as Miss Honey) that it could convince an audience of anything.

Entirely deserving of its Ned Sherrin Award for Best Musical at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards this year, Matilda is a show you really shouldn’t miss.

Matilda the Musical

Cambridge Theatre

Seven Dials

32 – 34 Earlham Street



Running up to and including 21st October 2012