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By Frankie Goodway
Spellbinding, rich, colourful, dark, moving and so Dahl. The story of Matilda is told with such expertise that the audience at the Cambridge Theatre permanently lean forward with as much anticipation as Matilda’s West Indian librarian, always wanting to know: “what happens next?”. In a nutshell: gifted child genius with horrible parents meets kind teacher at school with tyrannical headmistress.
In the RSC’s adaptation, Tim Minchin’s score (meticulously picked apart and remade over the last three years) flawlessly captures the innocence, quirkiness and, above all, hope of childhood. Mary Schmich famously said in her Chicago Tribune column:
“You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded … in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you, and how fabulous you really looked.”
Matilda the Musical does not feel like looking back. The best part of this beautifully arced and fantastical fairytale is that it will absorb you completely. Whether you’re 4 or 94, you will experience the “power”, “beauty” and optimistic possibilities of youth first hand. Provided you’re an adult, you’ll find that being absorbed by innocent fantasy is a rare gift.
It doesn’t matter if you hate musicals. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen a musical. It doesn’t matter if you have a very particular taste in musicals. You’ll laugh at the adult-aimed jokes but more importantly you will feel like a child again.
A couple of people who hadn’t seen the show said afterwards “I usually hate child actors”. I was too busy being outraged to realise that, if I hadn’t just seen Matilda, I would have wholeheartedly agreed! Matilda has cured me. Calling this group of kids a ‘talented bunch’ doesn’t come close.
Lyrics like “I will be tall enough to reach the branches that you need to reach to climb the trees you get to climb when you’re grown up” and “When I grow up / I will eat sweets every day / On my way to work” should be cringeworthy, sugary and vomitty. But they’re sung with such wondrous conviction that the I HATE CHILD ACTORS thought never crossed my mind. It’s neither over- nor under-acted but perfectly pitched.
Dennis Kelly and Minchin have bottled the wonder of children, even for people who hate children. Not once did I want to puke. Beautiful musical theatre moments decorate the production: actors walking into sunsets; the spotlit slow & over-the-shoulder ‘turn of realisation’ towards the audience; the striking of the legs apart, stand-up-tall “I shall now belt the final few bars” stance. But none of it is cliched or ugly.
There is no time to deal with the multi-layered brilliance of this show. Bertie Carvel steals the night as a three-dimensional, vulnerable and hilarious Miss Trunchbull. The Wormwoods are downright hilarious. The lighting is moody and evocative. There are also lasers. The set is as beautifully manoeuvred and engineered as it is designed (with magic tricks built in).
The RSC have placed themselves at the cutting edge of musical theatre and, for once, this isn’t a compliment which is code for “experimental twaddle”. Critics have written that the RSC have done again what they did with Les Mis 26 years ago. Hold on! Les Mis was initially panned by the critics and had a slow start. No such thing has happened with Matilda, even in the tricky transition from being “Matilda, A Musical” in Stratford to “Matilda THE Musical” in the West End. This is a blockbuster.