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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
MATILDA
at the Cambridge

CHILD'S PLAY
By SAM MARLOWE

  Cleo Demetriou and Paul Kaye/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

Schoolroom torture, child abuse, fantastical theatrical performers and unexpected family relationships – it’s no wonder the titular heroine of Roald Dahl’s tale loves "Nicholas Nickleby," when her story and Dickens’ novel share so many rich ingredients. This musical, with book by the playwright Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by the Australian oddball comic Tim Minchin, exuberantly celebrates the literary imagination that thrills and sustains the plucky Matilda. It’s also a grotesquely funny, irresistibly touching and dazzlingly clever triumph of family entertainment that should charm and delight even the most square-eyed of modern children, not to mention their parents.
 
Matthew Warchus’ RSC production, which transfered to the West End after opening to ecstatic reviews in Stratford-upon-Avon last year, begins with the brio and sly wit that typifies the show. On Rob Howell’s playroom-inspired set, constructed from oversized wooden alphabet building blocks, a posse of over-indulged youngsters in fancy dress gather for a birthday party. There are superheroes, princesses and ballerinas; they are all their parents’ little darlings – and, worryingly, they know it. “My mummy says I’m a miracle,” they chorus bumptiously.
 
Matilda Wormwood, however, is less fortunate, born to a vain, ballroom-dancing-obsessed mother who had assumed her pregnancy was wind, and a spivvy used-car salesman. But, given her parentage, she really is a miracle: a gifted child with a voracious appetite for books. She finds succour from her unhappy family life at the local library, where she entrances the good-hearted librarian by spinning a dramatic saga about an acrobat, an escapologist and their longed-for baby daughter. This perturbs the Wormwoods, who regard her as a nuisance and reading as a perversion, and who attempt to force-feed her with a diet of TV drivel. When that fails, they pack her off to Crunchem Hall School, where the motto is “children are maggots” and the headmistress, Miss Agatha Trunchbull, is a butch former Olympic hammer thrower and a sadistic bully. But Matilda won’t be broken or bested. Encouraged by the nurturing of kindly teacher Miss Jenny Honey – who turns out to have a surprising connection to characters in both Matilda’s imaginary world and in her real one – and aided by the discovery of some startling supernatural powers, she sets out to change the course of her life and create her own happy ending.
 
Bertie Carvel has been feted for his performance as the monstrous Miss Trunchbull, and he is, indeed, extraordinary. His shoulders, thanks to Howell’s eye-catching costumes, are colossal, his pale, shovel-faced pinhead topped with a scraped-back bun; his genteel voice has a ballsy femininity, hovering disconcertingly somewhere between Margaret Thatcher and the queen. He vibrates with disgust at the mere sight of his young charges, but is given to deranged flights of self-regarding fancy when reliving Agatha’s one-time sporting prowess. One sequence, realised with the help of illusionist Paul Kieve, sees him whirling a little girl around by her pigtails before hurling her to the ceiling. In another, he executes a high-kicking number on a vaulting horse, gym skirt flapping and frilly knickers on display.
 
But the cast is cracking all round, not least its youngest members. Cleo Demetriou, one of four Matildas who alternate in the role, is gutsy and affecting. Josie Walker and Paul Kaye are horribly funny as the Wormwoods. Lauren Ward as Miss Honey sings beautifully, and is all unaffected sweetness without ever becoming sickly.
 
Kelly’s book slightly loses its way in the second half. One or two moments lack impact, and Matilda’s wondrous telekinetic abilities are revealed much too late in the narrative. But the music is as playful and lively as the action; the lyrics – though sometimes difficult to hear, thanks to somewhat muddy amplification – are brilliantly adroit; and Peter Darling’s angular, emphatic choreography is a barnstorming joy. This is genuinely inventive musical theatre for young people that never patronises, dumbs down or sugarcoats. It’s dark, delicious and brimful of glorious glee.

 


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