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The RSC’s Matilda at the Cambridge Theatre
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s fearless and moving production of Matilda, inspirationally directed by Matthew Warchus, began life at RSC Stratford Upon Avon in 2010 and has been in residence at the Cambridge Theatre since 2011. Unsurprisingly this classy show remains popular as ever, and it has to be up there with Billy Elliot as one of my all-time favourite musicals.The set designed by Rob Howell bursts with colour and wit, its dizzying array of bright alphabet blocks and stacks of books climbing up from the stage and out into the auditorium itself.
‘Miracles’ is the intoxicating opening number, which introduces a troupe of terrifically-talented children, and with razor-sharp choreography by Peter Darling exciting the senses, we’re in eager anticipation of the wonderment in store.
Dennis Kelly’s deft adaptation and Tim Minchin’s sharp, droll lyrics address head-on the difficult subjects of child abuse, neglect, bullying and loneliness. The production gives an unusually powerful and poignant voice to the children, highlighting the inner world of a child’s vivid imagination – and in Matilda’s case an extraordinary resilience and intuition, which she uses resourcefully in the face of powerlessness and adversity.This is the story of an unwanted and unloved child living an utterly miserable existence with her vile parents and teenage brother Michael (Glen Facey) – a ‘Kevin’- style, monosyllabic moron. (Actually, that’s not entirely fair; Michael does utter two syllables, in the shape of ’Telly!!)
With comical coiffures and shouty clothing, mum and dad (played by Holly Dale Spence and Rob Crompton) are a terrific comic duo. Hilarious and grotesque, these small-minded, self-obsessed caricatures demonstrate they don’t have a lot going on upstairs, whilst forever hurling streams of abuse at poor Matilda.
Little Matilda seeks solace from her downright miserable existence in a world of books. She’s a voracious reader, clever beyond her years…and she finds she has some amazing telekinetic powers which she uses to wreak her revenge!Roald Dahl depicts childhood terrors with compassion and an empathy born of experience. As a child, he survived grief and loss, and as an adult he drew upon these, transforming them into inspiration for his wonderfully wicked stories. Dahl’s child protagonists are forever oppressed by a stupid, cruel adult world; but equipped with never-ending supplies of resilience and determination they find ways to rebel and take control of their lives.
There are so many brilliant performances here, including Malinda Parris’s heartwarming portrayal of lovely Mrs Phelps, the librarian whose insatiable appetite for stories provides an outlet for Matilda’s anarchic imaginative world.
Gina Beck imbues Miss Honey with insight, warmth and vulnerability, as the timid, kind and committed teacher who immediately recognizes in Matilda a child of extraordinary abilities. With Miss Honey, Matilda experiences for the first time human tenderness and understanding.
However…a dark shadow is ever-present, in the form of the psychopathic headteacher, Miss Trunchbull. Portrayed with malicious glee by Hayden Tee, ‘The Trunchbull’ is an ex-hammer-throwing champion; a terrifying bully and overgrown bulldog-in-women’s-clothing who rules her school with an iron fist, cruelly reminding everyone that – as far as she is concerned – “children are maggots”. Trunchbull hurls them by their pigtails, imprisons them in the terrifying ‘Chokey’, and force-feeds poor Billy Bogtrotter an obscene amount of cake as punishment.
As one might expect, she takes a particular dislike to clever Matilda. But this time…she’s picked on the wrong child!
Played by an alternating set of young actors, the children are without a doubt the stars of this show. Billy Bogtrotter soars; a butterball diva. Our heroine was everything I wanted her to be; extraordinary and spirited, spindly and angular as a Quentin Blake drawing, she commands the stage with astonishing assurance. Matilda is a tale of children fighting back. Never sentimental (and like all the best entertainment, not without a ‘soupcon’ of menace) it’s a story with which children and adults alike will identify. This genius production takes you on an exhilarating roller-coaster ride; slick, funny, painful and heartwarming (you are challenged not to be moved by a wonderful rendition of ‘When I Grow Up’), it’s likely to make you laugh and cry, and everything in between.
Matilda the Musical
32-34 Earlham Street
Looking for something different? We have just reviewed 42nd Street, also currently showing in the West End at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.