Matilda the Musical is based on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book and has been adapted for the stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company. While it’s a pairing that you wouldn’t quite expect, the results couldn’t be more entertaining.
Racking up accolades and critical acclaim since its opening on the West End, Matilda the Musical is arguably one of the best new musicals around – wildly entertaining for children and adults alike, full of magic, moral integrity, comedy, drama, and plenty of twists and turns. And that’s before I’ve even mentioned the sensational choreography and singing, from a cast comprised largely of young actors.
My daughter is an avid Roald Dahl fan and, among his many captivating stories, Matilda is her favourite. So when I told her we had tickets to see the musical at ‘The West End of the North East’, I was instantly promoted to her favourite parent. In preparation for the big event, she read and re-read the book to make sure she had all the details down – and to ensure that the Royal Shakespeare Company didn’t miss a trick in their delivery. Spoiler: they didn’t.
There was the terrifying Miss Trunchbull (brilliantly acted by Craige Els) who was typically monstrous – both physically (she is a former championship hammer-thrower, after all) and in her personality (she likes locking children in cupboards). Then there are Matilda’s parents – Mr and Mrs Wormwood (Sebastien Torkia and Rebecca Thornhill) who never planned on having a second child and so ignore Matilda as much as possible (they even forget sometimes that she’s a girl!). Roald Dahl’s overriding impression of adults is only really saved by the saintly, sweet Miss Honey (Carly Thoms), who is kind, caring and Matilda’s only champion.
But while these actors capture Roald Dahl’s caricatures of adulthood perfectly – both delightful (in the case of Miss Honey) and delightfully grotesque (in the case of all the others) – it is young Annalise Bradbury who steals the show as Matilda. Reading Dickens and Dostoevsky before she even started school, Matilda lives largely in a world of her own imagination to escape the neglect of her parents and the abuse of her headmistress. Smart, funny, loving, strong and handily endowed with magical powers, she is the archetypal hero embodied in the not-so-typical character of a five-year-old girl. Annalise effortlessly brought Roald Dahl’s titular creation to life, throwing in an extra layer of sass, sophistication and humour, just for good measure.
And while staying largely true to Roald Dahl’s original tale (because why wouldn’t you?) the Royal Shakespeare Company also incorporated a number of clever subplots into their stage adaptation, which they wove ingeniously and not at all disruptively into the story. Like Mrs Wormwood’s enthusiasm for dance (and, particularly, for her dance partner Rodolpho) or the addition of librarian Mrs Phelps, who is so engrossed by Matilda’s voracious reading habits that she hangs on her every word. Then, of course, there’s the musical element. The athleticism of dance and movement in The Smell of Rebellion as the ‘little maggots’ (aka, children) were sent flying across the stage by Miss Trunchbull was particularly impressive; the live band – under musical director Andrew Corcoran – were faultless from beginning to end, and the precision of the singing was so consistent and effortless that it was easy to forget just how young many of the cast are.
A fantastic, vibrant performance was further brought to life by spectacular set design and production. Designer Rob Howell ensured that all of the library scenes took place within a set made almost entirely of books – which I thought was a particularly nice touch given the importance of storytelling to the plot – and his automation meant that huge walls of scenery could be moved swiftly on and off stage. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting made a significant contribution to the overall effect of the set design, too: bright primary colours illuminated the Wormwood’s particularly bad taste in decor, while pointed shadows made Miss Trunchbull’s classroom look extra drab, dark and dingy.
Director Matthew Warchus has ingeniously (and seemingly effortlessly) brought together the many components of any successful West End musical, and has then sprinkled his own unique brand of pizzazz to create a dazzling production that perfectly captures the magic of Roald Dahl’s timeless tale, while still offering something new for theatregoers. To use my daughter’s words, it was ‘the best show I’ve ever seen’.
Matilda the Musical will run at the Sunderland Empire until 2nd June, 2018.
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