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I persuaded my family to go with me to see Matilda the Musical, to much dismay from them as they were all expecting a show for young children. As we are all above the age of 18, they really didn't understand why I wanted to go, but after hearing great things from friends who had seen the show, and having been a massive fan of the book and film as a child, I had to see what all the fuss was about.
As we entered the theatre, my family's dread just increased, as we found ourselves in a room full of children's squiggles, chalkboards with childish jokes on and what in my eyes were brilliant decorations perfectly chosen in combination for the show, but in their's, confirmation that they were about to watch a boring show designed for young kids.
The set itself was spectacular, with alphabet blocks surrounding the proscenium arch, spelling out words, sometimes spelt incorrectly. The theatre was understandably full of families, but also many couples and groups of just adults. Still no comfort was to be found for my family, who had already decided they would hate it.
How wrong they were. My 22 year old sister sat before the show started with a forced look of disgust, but within 20 minutes this had turned into a massive smile. The same smile was apparent on the faces of the entire theatre, as everyone had realised there was something truly special about this show.
The cast were nothing short of superb. The girl playing Matilda was absolutely phenomenal, definitely worthy of the Best Actress in a Musical Olivier Award she jointly received with the other Matildas. The rest of the children were incredible also, and never before have I seen such talent from people so young. Normally when I go to a show with younger cast members, I don't expect too much, as while they will of course be better than the average for their age, you can't expect them to be flawless. But these kids were. Every one of them managed to have the whole theatre laughing, they were completely professional, and their talent was astounding. The RSC have certainly found the best for these parts. Bertie Carvel as Trunchbull was absolutely hilarious. I was expecting the part to be played similiarly to Pam Ferris' film portrayal, but I was wrong. Bertie found Trunchbull's insecurities, playing her much more delicately to hilarious effect. He filled the musical with even more laugh out loud moments. Mr Wormwood gave another stand out performance. None of the cast let anyone down though, and they were all perfect for their roles.
The effects were also brilliant, with Trunchbull's attacks on the students being made into huge theatrical events and quickly building a fantastic atmosphere. The music was catchy, fun and suited the show. The choreography was exciting, and brought out the best in all of the actors. I haven't seen such brilliant choreography amongst a cast made up of mostly youngsters in a long, long time. The script was great, funny but also delicate and beautiful.
I really cannot find a single fault in this show. It surpassed all of mine and my family's expectations, and I came out of the theatre already knowing I would have to go again. The RSC have made something really special here, and I hope that it remains on the West End for many years to come. It deserves to. Don't be put off thinking it is a show just for families with young children. There's a reason Matilda won so many awards at the Olivier's this year, and I think everyone who has seen this spectacular show would have to agree that it deserves every single one.
Matilda the musical opened December 9th at the RSC's Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to spectacular reviews. Hailed in the Telegraph as the greatest British Musical since Billy Elliot, it boasts a stellar team of creatives led by Matthew Warchus, Tony Award winning director for Gods of Carnage who most famously directed the interminable flop that was the Lord of the Rings musical. Matthew Warchus brings with him designer Rob Howell, choreographer Peter Darling and Musical Supervisor Chris Nightingale, all of whom have worked with him on previous projects. The book was written by Dennis Kelly and lyrics and score by that most mischievous of comedian/composers, who was recently called a 'god of musical comedy, Tim Minchin.
Stratford-upon-Avon is a pretty town, made especially so when covered by snow. It is a bit over the top with the Shakespeare thing, I couldn't imagine living there if that was all I was faced with, but one could argue what else is the town to do. Shakespeare is still their biggest earner, so it suits them well. So this little explosion of colour that is Matilda the Musical is a welcome change, as intimated by some of the local Stratford-ites who were present in the audience with me. Giant, colourful clothes pegs hold up the signage out front of the Courtyard and lettered tiles are strewn all over the entry way floor in a somewhat haphazard manner. In the foyer of the Courtyard, which was abuzz with noise, excitement and enthusiasm from its young and not-so-young crowd alike, the walls have become giant chalkboards, where you can express your thoughts about what you've seen, what you are about to see, or what you think of the size of your brother's head. Each example was present on the wall when I visited. The merchandising kiosk is awash with colour and serious tomes on Shakespeare and how it is to be revered must share space with outlandish chocolate cake recipes, curiously spelled words and spiky anarchic drawings a la Quentin Blake. I've seen many plays at the Courtyard, but I don't think I've ever seen the front of house staff quite as joyous.
Rob Howell's design is simple yet overwhelmingly stunning. The lettered tiles on the walk outside the theatre are a clue to what you are about to encounter in the auditorium. A veritable tidal wave of lettered tiles climb the proscenium arch and continue over and above, as if about to come crashing down on you. All manner of them, from Victorian word game tiles to the humble scrabble tile. If you spend some time looking up, especially in the interval, you quickly realise there are words from the piece in the seeming jumble of colours and letters, and even at the end of the play, you are loathe to leave the auditorium for fear you might have missed a few. The thrust stage is used superbly, desks and other bits of set rise up out of it, the back wall opens for some of the larger set pieces to be tracked on and off and a massive library of books emerges from the wings. Nothing is out of place or extraneous, the magic trickery is sparse but poignant allowing the story to take centre stage and not the illusions.
THE STORY AND THE MUSIC
Dennis Kelly is no stranger to the pen, most famous for his BBC 3 sitcom Pulling. Here he charmingly pulls together all the juicy bits from Roald Dahl's story (as if there could be any non juicy bits!) and adding in some dramatic nuance of his own, which takes the shape of a prophetic story told by little Matilda to the librarian Mrs. Phelps (Melanie La Barrie). Kelly's script is punchy, to the point and never meanders or wavers. His use of language is apt, the Wormwoods are simple, the Trunchbull, shakespearean, Miss Honey is sweet but never saccharine and Mrs. Phelps is gentle. Words have power in this play where reading is lauded and most important. Woven seamlessly into this well constructed story are the anarchic, witty, naughty, revolutionary, sometimes touching songs of talented Australian wordsmith Tim Minchin. Well known for his own daring and mischievous shows, Tim shows yet another side with tuneful, beautiful songs such as My House and Matilda's own tour de force of explanation, Quiet. There are many memorable songs, that even in their impishness, cut straight to your heart. The plaintive, When I Grow Up at the start of the second half, throws you right back to your own childhood and all the wishes and hopes you had for yourself then. The book and the songs are always clever, every moment is an intellectual and emotional treat. Matilda's sense of justice is heightened here, the refrain 'That's not right' is sprinkled throughout the piece, and my favourite lyrics feature in her song 'Naughty' - 'Just because you find that life's not fair, It doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it, If you always take it on the chin and wear it, Nothing will change. Even if you're little you can do alot, You mustn't let a little thing like little stop you, If you sit around and let them get on top, you might as well be saying, you think that it's okay. And that's not right!'
This show was cast to perfection. Paul Kaye, best known for his outrageous Dennis Pennis, gives a spiky, hilarious, and in many turns dark performance as Mr. Wormwood, the target of all of Matilda's pranks, in her effort to teach him a few lessons. He switches from the jocular to the menacing in the sparsest of instances, turning on a dime from having you laughing to having you appalled by the treatment he metes out to his daughter, who he constantly calls a boy.
Mrs. Wormwood, as played by Josie Walker, delivers her own brand of abuse by just ignoring the genius child and concentrating wholeheartedly on her latin dancing career and lessons from her outrageous partner Rudolpho (played to scene stealing, leather clad, oily hipped perfection by Michael Rouse). Josie Walker seems to be straight out of The Only Way is Essex, and she delivers a powerhouse singing and dancing performance in the duet 'Loud' with Rudolpho. The rest of the time, she's shrieking, she's tottering on glittery stilettos and delivering killer punchlines. Michael Wormwood rounds out the family, Pete Howe who plays him has fun as the monosyllabic moronic brother, and the audience has fun with him too.
But not all grown ups are evil, the first that Matilda encounters outside of the home is the librarian Mrs. Phelps played astutely by Melanie La Barrie. La Barrie's job is to provide a safe and gentle place for Matilda to be herself, to listen and be excited by the world that Matilda creates, and La Barrie does so selflessly, making comedy out of little and giving the audience all the right cues as to what they should feel about this majestic story that Matilda is telling. Ms. Honey is beautifully played by Lauren Ward. Ward brings such an open sincerity to the character, that we all fall in love with her by her first entrance. Her beautiful voice soars on her second act number 'My House' and she gently takes Matilda by the hand and guides her. This is a touching relationship.
Then there is the Trunchbull. Or Ms Agatha Trunchbull to give her her dues. And here perfection is given in the performance of Bertie Carvel. He makes us wait, he makes us listen. He terrifies us, snarling and spitting, but there isn't an ounce of camp in his performance. His performance has been compared to one that should be in Richard III, and this is apt, his entire manner is studied, his left hand claw like when unused, his hair pulled back to harden his gaze. He handles his language with relish and aplomb and he gives a powerhouse performance in all aspects. He is certainly one to watch.
And then there is Matilda, played on the night I saw it by Kerry Ingram (two other girls share the role). Here is a special child, who doesn't seem to know she's on stage, or that there's anything special at all about her, just like Matilda. Her voice is frail in parts, enthusiastically foghorn like in others. She skips, she falls down sometimes, she scratches her nose, pulls her hair from her eyes, stands on tip toes, then turns her feet out, and all the while she is enthralling, thrilling, magnificent in every way. There is never a mis step and if there was, I could not find it. She is perfect, just perfect.
This is one of the most thrilling pieces of musical theatre that I have ever seen. It is a shame that there is such a short run, no cast album is available at present and that the West End transfer is only a rumour at this stage. I feel honoured that I got to see this, and if you can bag a ticket (many shows are sold out) for sometime in the next few weeks, beg, borrow or steal to do so. You'll be glad you do. As the first song in the show states, 'You can be all cynical, but it's a truth empirical, there's never been a miracle as me'. There has never been a miracle like Matilda. You'll be happy to meet her.