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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
MATILDA
at the Cambridge

TOP OF THE CLASS
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Bertie Carvel and Cleo Demetriou/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

It’s axiomatic that musicals in which children predominate invariably strike gold. Think The King And I, The Sound of Music, Oliver and, in more recent times, Annie and Billy Elliot – all international front-runners and global mega-hits. You can now add another to that distinguished list: Matilda, based on a novel by Roald Dahl.
 
Premiered a year ago in Stratford-on-Avon, this highly praised Royal Shakespeare Company production has finally made it to the West End where you do not need the telekenetic powers of its titular heroine to foresee a long and lucrative future on both sides of the Atlantic – as well as everywhere else in the world where musicals are enjoyed.
 
Dennis Kelly, who wrote the book, and Tim Minchin, who wrote the music and lyrics, have excavated musical comedy gold from Dahl’s potent tale of an extraordinarily precocious little girl (called Matilda) who not only has to endure the hurtful taunts of her cold and unloving parents (Josie Walker and Paul Kaye), but the cruelty and sadism of Miss Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel), the gorgon headmistress of a school whose motto is “children are maggots.”
 
How Matilda, who realizes that occasionally she needs to be “a bit naughty” to survive the trials and tribulations heaped on her both at home and at school, finds love and acceptance in the shape of a kindly teacher called Miss Honey (Laura Ward), gives the show its narrative thrust.
 
If there is any truth to the maxim that for a musical to succeed it has to have at least one major character you can root for, Matilda demonstrates this to perfection. You want this feisty kid to overcome her impossible odds – just as you wanted Oliver to succeed, or Annie or Billy. She does so, of course, despite being told that not all stories have happy endings.
 
There are four young actresses alternating the role of Matilda. At the performance I attended Kerry Ingram was on – or, should I say, spot on. She acted without a trace of sentimentality, sang delightfully and made an utterly engaging spectacle of herself.
 
Walker as her mother occasionally overdoes the character’s in-your-face stridency. Kaye is fine as her con-man father who insists on calling his daughter his son, and Ward as Miss Honey, the only sane adult on view, oozes niceness and has the best voice in the cast.
 
However, if the devil has all the best tunes, then Carvel as the sadistic Miss Trunchbull commits grand larceny on an industrial scale. Sporting a bosom no bra ever known to womankind could accommodate, hair knotted into an uncompromising bun the size of a cricket ball and with a creepily androgynous voice dripping toxins, Carvel deliciously creates an irresistible character you just love to hate – warts and all (literally!).
 
Minchin’s jaunty if somewhat derivative score evokes tunes and rhythms from a handful of other musicals, but it is well integrated into Kelly’s excellent book. His lyrics, some of which are lost in the production’s aggressive amplification system, efficiently further the plot.
 
Peter Darling’s choreography – most notably in the striking opening number, "Miracle," and a sequence involving vault apparatuses in a gym – are perfectly structured to suit the high-octane energy of the show’s galvanic young cart. Nor does it want for invention.
 
Rob Howell’s set, dominated by alphabet blocks both on stage and all around the proscenium arch, makes a striking visual statement, while the skill and fluency of Matthew Warchus’ overall production assures that Matilda, the musical, spells S-M-A-S-H H-I-T.

 


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