I know we shouldn’t be surprised when a cast of children is impressive, but by golly, the kids in Matilda The Musical have a tough job to do but they do it with panache.
On the evening I saw the much anticipated London transfer of the Royal Shakespeare Company production – which won many a plaudit during its Stratford run last year and has already collected the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical – the title role of an exceptional young girl, neglected by her family and tormented by her headmistress, was played with aplomb by Eleanor Worthington Cox. She was both strong and vulnerable, assertive beyond her years yet still very much a child. And she can sing… and dance.
As can all the kids in the cast. Boy can they dance. Choreographer Peter Darling has made no concession to the fact that many of his stars probably were not born until at least a decade after Roald Dahl’s book, on which the musical is based, was first published. His routines are as intricate as they are impressive. When the dances themselves are not enough, he throws in gates, blocks and swings to spice them up.
I suspect fans of Dahl’s dark, twisted, hyper reality will applaud the adaptation. From Rob Howell’s building blocked design that climbs its way out from the stage and into the audience and the towering shelves of his set, to Dennis Kelly’s sharp script, which is full of black humour and nastiness, silliness and warmth, it feels a fitting tribute to the great children’s writer.
Tim Minchin’s songs too are full of quick fire witticisms and intelligence, nuance and naughtiness; childish excitement and verve bubbling over in Naughty, When I Grow Up and Revolting Children, with more melancholia seeping in with Pathetic and I’m Here.
Bertie Carvel, donning a reinforced female framework to play the bullying headmistress Miss Trunchbull, has already picked up a Theatre Award UK for his performance, and it is easy to see why. His cross dressing tour de force is as far from a panto Dame as you can get while still being a man dressed as a woman. He is quietly terrifying, always millimetres away from explosion or breakdown, subtly shaking with anger or panic.
The rest of the adults aren’t half bad either, Paul Kaye playing a repulsively reptilian Mr Wormwood to Josie Walker’s Mrs Wormwood, who makes EastEnders’ Pat Butcher look like the pinnacle of style and refinement. Lauren Ward, as one of the few sympathetic characters older than 10, is a sweetly fragile Miss Honey floundering as she tries to find her voice.
Experienced director Matthew Warchus is the man pulling all the strings and bringing the piece together. His pacing is perfect with devilish Dahl-ian flourishes scattered like macabre gifts throughout the production.
Matilda The Musical arrived in London with a weight of reputation weighing on its shoulders. Like eating an entire chocolate cake oneself, the prospect could have proved far more appealing than the reality. In fact, to paraphrase one of Minchin’s songs, it covers itself in chocolate glory, and I’d happily have a second helping.