Matilda The Musical – Wickedly funny, beautifully poignant

When I was 8, I stumbled across a book called Matilda. It changed my life. It was funny, clever and touching. The lead character was a lot like me.

22 years later I find myself outside the Cambridge theatre in the West End. My beloved childhood book has been made into a musical.

Matilda The Musical, has won 7 olivia awards, and the best West End show award at the Whatsonstage.com awards. It is running on Broadway and due to make its debut in Sydney, Australia in August 2015.

Stepping inside the theatre is like stepping into one of Dahl’s books. The set is vibrant and exciting. The main stage is decorated with interlinking bookshelves. Neon alphabet blocks completely cover the area around the stage and above the front of the audience to create a 3D effect.  Seven blocks hang in the centre of the stage, spelling out Matilda.  As we wait for the show to begin I watch children’s delight as they trace words in the set.

The musical opens with ‘miracle,’ an all singing, all dancing celebration of how special the children are to their parents. And then we see Matilda, played by the talented Lollie Mckenzie and learn just what her parents think of her. She is the reason her mother missed the international amateur ballroom championships and the daughter her father wishes he never had.

‘Go away, boy.’

‘I’m a GIRL!’

Lollie is the perfect version of Matilda.  Her love of storytelling and incredible bravery in overcoming her parents ignorance and stupidity. She is seen by Miss Trunchbull as a troublemaker, who needs to be taught a lesson. But the quiet and caring miss honey sees promise and vows to help. Lollie commands stage presence wonderfully, belting out songs and adding nice touches to the role. She manages to re-establish the connection I felt when I first read Matilda’s story. And I’m immediately enticed into her world.

James Clyde and Kay Murphy are perfect as Mr and Mrs Wormwood. Extrovertly dressed, with common accents and a shared disrespect for their daughter, they are more concerned with watching mindless TV and making money. Mrs Wormwood’s comment that ‘Looks’ are more important than ‘books,’ horrifies miss honey.

The most poignant scene, where Mr Wormwood destroys Matilda’s library book, leaving her in tears, is not missed by the producers. It is highlighted as the moment Matilda seeks revenge.

The bond between Miss honey and her student plays out beautifully. When Miss honey (Hayley Flaherty) brings Matilda some books to read while she teaches the rest of the class, there is a pause, where we begin to wonder if the child actress has forgotten her lines. Then she falls into Miss honey’s arms. This simple touch promotes the essence of the story. The need for love and encouragement in a child’s life. Matilda looks up to Miss honey, and she looks out for her too.

Although it’s surprising that a man has been chosen for the role of Miss Trunchball. (Alex Gaumond)  This actually adds to the masculine and absurd element of the character!

When we first see her, she has her back to us and Miss Honey. She sits at her desk, surrounded by security cameras, spying on her school children. Miss Honey is vouching for Matilda’s brilliance. Slowly the chair turns around and we see the character in full.

The audience laugh as Gaumond marches around the stage, bellowing at the children and teachers alike, reducing miss honey to a timid wreck. Gaumond’s facial expressions are hilarious. The costume department deserve credit for creating her notorious military style suit, complete with football socks and masculine shoes, as well as the phys ed netball skirt and Olympic sports bra. Which,  on gaining laughs, she abruptly adjusts.

But there is also a terrifying element to Miss Trunchbull. She will stop at nothing to punish the ‘snotty nosed’ children who are in her care. The infamous Chokey is alluded to but never seen. And the Trunchbull’s appearance is accompanied by foreboding music, sinister lighting and thick smoke. The atmosphere around the character is fantastic.

It is a delight to see that key scenes have been included: Matilda mixing her parents hair products; gluing the rim of her fathers hat; the newt in Miss Trunchbull’s water and Bogtrotter’s cake eating challenge.  The special effects are very impressive. Particularly Miss Trunchbull’s throwing Amanda, by her pigtails, across the school yard. I was startled to see the Trunch actually lift Amanda by her collar (still trying to work out how they did this!) and swing her around horizontally, until the stage went dark. Moments later, her class mates are in the audience, waiting to catch her.

The children are absolutely brilliant, in their energy and enthusiasm in their roles, whether it be the dippy, loveable Lavender who promises to be Matilda’s ‘best, best friend…’ or the clumsy, greedy Bruce Bogtrotter who can’t help eating a slice of Miss Trunchball’s cake. They are a delight to watch.

I like the fact that Miss Phelps, the Librarian, is Caribbean. It adds an interesting and modern twist on the character. She is another good adult who Matilda goes to tell her stories and share books. And she clearly cares about her.

Tim Minchin has created some wonderful songs as the show’s music writer, with a focus on the playful language and musicality of Dahl’s stories.

‘When I grow up’ is a beautiful homage to a child’s innocence and optimism. With words like ‘I will eat sweets and stay up late every night…i will know the answers to the questions i need to know.’ This strikes a chord with the adults watching, who realise, as Minchin notes in the programme interview

‘I thought that too’.

Also Matilda’s song ‘Naughty’ has some inspirational lines ‘Just because life isn’t fair.. doesn’t mean you have to grin and bear it. Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.’

The lighting, sound and special effects work to create atmosphere. Particularly for Miss Trunchbull scenes, where the stage is often dark, heavy with smoke and loud foreboding music. Soft lighting compliments the library and Miss Honey’s classroom to suggest the joy of learning and close relationships.

Harsh, clashing colours, full lighting and minimal objects appear in Matilda’s house. In parallel to her parents clothes and accents. Her bedroom has softer lighting and bookshelves line the wall above her bed.

For Dennis Kelly, the book writer, Matilda is ultimately about stories. And he wanted to focus on Matilda’s love for telling stories as much as reading them. With a talented cast, vibrant sets and costumes and some beautiful musical arrangements, the team have achieved this. Matilda the musical is an enjoyable and memorable production suitable for the child in everyone.

RSC Production

Cambridge Theatre, Earlham Street, London

Dennis Kelly (Book)

Tim Minchin (Music and Lyrics)