On paper, Matilda, A Musical looks like a winner. Based on the original children's novel by Roald Dahl, with a script by Dennis Kelly supported by music and lyrics created by comedy genius Tim Minchin? What? AND it's directed by Matthew Warchus? Could any production live up to such a hype? Well, there's a simple answer to that question: yes it can.
Matilda is the perfect children's story. We watch as a young girl with an extraordinary mind overcomes all odds to overthrow the domineering adults around her. She is ignored by her family and detested by her headmistress, the towering Miss Trunchbull, who sees all children as maggots. This is how many adults look like to children, and for once they aren't allowed to get their way.
This new production is far more faithful to Dahl's original novel than the later film version. Matilda's magic is shown to be miraculous, rather than the superpower it was later made to be. One rather curious addition is that of a storyline explaining Miss Honey's childhood situation. It sometimes seems rather redundant, but does create a closer bond between Honey and her pupil. Having another story to divert our attention away from the main arc is often a welcome break.
Dennis Kelly's book appeals to both adults and children alike. It is witty, daring and moving, and speaks to everyone, without patronising or confusing. It is simple, and is complemented perfectly by Tim Minchin's music and lyrics. The lyrical dexterity with which he writes is nothing short of miraculous in itself, and we often hear his voice coming through, especially in songs such as 'Quiet' and 'My House'. He is the ideal wordsmith for this musical; many of the songs hold within them amazing existential thoughts but always have a cheeky childishness embedded within.
The design is clearly based on drawings by the original illustrator, Quentin Blake. Scrabble tiles adorn the theatre, and the costumes are all larger than life. Miss Trunchbull looks like exactly like we remember her all those years ago, and along with the children they all look like they could have been sketched by Blake. Rob Howell's design emphasises the beauty of words, and is lit vibrantly by High Vanstone.
The entire cast is superb, portraying caricatures while remaining human. Josie Walker and Paul Kaye capture the ignorance of the Wormwoods with flair, and Lauren Ward as Miss Honey beautifully offers a vital counterbalance to them. Initially, the choice to play Trunchbull in drag is somewhat disconcerting, but the hilarious Bertie Carvel brings out the headmistress' masculinity, and during fleeting moments we pity her. As the eponymous hero, however, Adrianna Bertola is extraordinary, and offers both the intelligence and playfulness required. When Bertola is on stage, all eyes are on her.
As it stands, the show (it is still in previews), at almost three hours, is slightly too long, especially for a show with a young audience. It also feels like too much action is played to the central auditorium, and that pulling back everything a metre or two would benefit everyone. Of course, these are the sort of things which will smooth over after previews, but they certainly need to be addressed. Then again, our minds are usually on other things, namely chalk magically writing on blackboards.
Matilda, A Musical is no doubt going to be the must-see show this Christmas. Is is a joyous, magical and wonderous retelling of a treasured story. We understand the power of words and of reading, something too-oft forgotten in this technological age. Minchin's songs will play over and over again in your head and some of Kelly's script will be etched in your mind for months. Watching the production, something miraculous happens: we feel our adult selves regressing into children we once were and see the memories come flooding back. Again, a perfect demonstration of the power of theatre. West End transfer, anyone?