Book by Dennis Kelly based on the story by Roald Dahl with music & lyrics by Tim Minchin
Teacher / Doctor – Tim Walton
Mrs Wormwood – Josie Walker
Mr Wormwood – Paul Kaye
Michael Wormwood – Peter Howe
Mrs Phelps – Melanie La Barrie
Miss Honey – Lauren Ward
The Escapologist – Matthew Malthouse
The Acrobat – Emily Shaw
Miss Trunchbull – Bertie Carvel
Rudolpho – Gary Watson
Cook – Verity Bentham
Sergei – Alistair Parker
Henchmen – Marc Antolin & Nick Searle
Henchwoman – Lucy Thatcher
Swings – Matthew Clark, Michael Kent, Rachel Moran & Leanne Pinder
Matilda – Cleo Demetriou
Lavender – Jemima Eaton
Bruce – James Beesley
Nigel – Alfie Manser
Amanda – Lily Laight
Eric – Toby Murray
Alice – Alicia Gould
Hortensia – Oonagh Cox
Tommy – Thomas Atkinson
Bruce O’Neil (musical director & keyboard); Laura Bangay (children’s musical director); Alan Berry & Spencer James (keyboards); Kay Bywater (flute, alto saxophone & clarinet); Pete Whyman (bass clarinet); Peter Walton (guitars); Justin Pearson (cello); Tim Harries (upright bass & electric bass); Toby Coles (trumpet, flugelhorn & piccolo trumpet); Simon Lenton (trumpet, cornet & piccolo trumpet); Richard Edwards (trombone & bass trombone); Jim Fleeman (percussion)
Matthew Warchus – Director
André Ptaszynski – Executive Producer
Peter Darling – Choreographer
Rob Howell – Set & Costume Designer
Hugh Vanstone – Lighting Designer
Simon Baker – Sound Designer
Chris Nightingale – Orchestrations & Additional Music
Paul Kieve – Illusionist
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 24 November, 2011
Venue: Cambridge Theatre, London
Most adaptations of stories by Roald Dahl (1916-1990) have served the author well. He was adept at adapting other writers’ works for the cinema such as Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Joy Cowley’s The Night Digger, while his own stories have translated well to both the big and small screens (36 Hours, Lamb to the Slaughter and other stories adapted for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected). However, it is Dahl’s children’s stories that have done particularly well both in print and at the cinema, beginning with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971 (from the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), then Danny the Champion of the World, a television movie that was also released as a cinema film, followed by The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, a re-make of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and, just two years ago, Fantastic Mr Fox. However, Dahl did not approve of the first version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory because it was too much about Willy Wonka and not enough about the titular hero Charlie, so he subsequently forbade any more films to be made from his stories in his lifetime. Somehow they got made anyway.
Matilda is the first stage musical to be adapted from a Dahl book. The Royal Shakespeare Company staged its version of Matilda the Musical in its Stratford-upon-Avon Courtyard auditorium in 2010, winning the Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical of the Year. Its transfer to London’s Cambridge Theatre has already earned it two gongs in the Evening Standard Theatre Awards for Best Musical and Best Musical Performance by Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull. It has hit town at the right moment.
Although Dahl loved children (he had five of his own and latterly wrote mostly for younger readers) in his stories children are often in peril from their grown-ups. They get abused, insulted and put-down in the most awful ways imaginable, so that his writing harks back to the times about which Charles Dickens wrote. As in Dickens, authority-figures such as parents and teachers hate their young charges, reflecting Dahl’s experience of being bullied. In Matilda there are shades of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit or Nicholas Nickleby in which children are abused or forced into work to support their poor families. These conditions stemmed from Dickens’s own experience and his hard-labour at a boot-blacking factory.
Just as Dickens was adept at creating great albeit ugly characters Dahl often has a cast of evil, monstrous grotesques to torment his young heroes; he even invented the Child Catcher for his film adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In some advice to would-be writers Dahl once recommended they “have one or two very bad people in the story – and do them in at the end.” Therein lies Dahl’s success with writing for children.
In Matilda the Musical it is the heroine’s parents who are the monsters – the unfeeling Mr and Mrs Wormwood – the bane of the little girl’s life. Slaves to the television, the Wormwoods and their son Michael are cast from the same mould. Matilda, her father really wanted another son, would rather read the English and Russian classics and can quote Dickens (yes!) and Dostoevsky at the drop of a remote control. She spends every possible moment in the library relating stories to Mrs Phelps, her kindly librarian friend. The set for the show is a vast library of books and alphabet blocks, suggesting that reading is good and knowledge is power.
When our heroine is sent to Crunchem Hall (much like Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby) it is the Headmistress Miss Trunchbull who rules the roost; not like a mother hen but like a predatory eagle. She is the one who bullies the children, referring to them as “maggots”. One of Dahl’s finest grotesques, she’s half-woman, half-athlete, a champion hammer-thrower in her youth – with all the ferocity of a strong man but with none of the femininity of a woman. When the children are really bad they are sent to “chokey”, locked up in solitary confinement. However, she is no match for little Matilda, whose only other real adult friend, apart from Mrs Phelps, is her teacher Miss Honey. Matilda develops kinetic powers that allow her to move objects and thus comes Trunchbull’s downfall. The children (and Miss Honey) have to win in the end and they dispense with the Headmistress in no uncertain terms.
The stage show is a mad, bad conglomeration of cruelty and humour, a little overdone at times. Some of the characters are more caricature than real-life, so don’t go expecting subtlety. These are cut-out ciphers representing ignorance, poverty of mind and spirit, evil incarnate but also, at times, sweetness and light. Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics are rock-orientated so it’s loud and proud and Dennis Kelly’s adaptation of the book has both young and old in fits of laughter. Rob Howell’s colourful designs are like being trapped in a vast nursery from which there is no escape. Director Matthew Warchus is on a roll at the moment with his success here and also with Ghost the Musical.
The children are terrific, rising to the occasion with superb vitality, singing and dancing up a storm in Peter Darling’s exuberant choreography. There are four young ladies playing Matilda: Cleo Demetriou went straight to every heart in the auditorium. Paul Kaye and Josie Walker are a literal scream as the Wormwood parents, straight out of The Only Way Is Essex, while Lauren Ward as Miss Honey and Melanie La Barrie as Mrs Phelps are the two good guys. The show perhaps belongs to Bertie Carvel as Trunchbull, the one character that all the children love to hate. It is a bravura performance in which the cruelty of the part is tempered by ‘she’ being played by a ‘he’, yet it’s far from being a man in drag. She’s a true icon in her own evil lifetime.
Matilda is not the greatest musical ever written, but it will do very nicely for the time being, filling the RSC coffers in much the same way that Les Misérables has kept the company out of debt.
- Matilda the Musical is at the Cambridge Theatre, Earlham Street, London WC2
- Monday to Saturday 7.30 p.m. and matinees Wednesday & Saturday at 2.30
- Tickets on 0844 412 4652
- Matilda the Musical