Eight years ago, I snagged tickets to Matilda: The Musical at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Courtyard Theatre. I was delighted that not only was one of my favourite children’s books turned into musical theatre (oh, how I love a musical), but it was opening in my hometown and I’d be able to take my niece along to revel in the magic. But my joy was short-lived, something went awry with the booking, my tickets disappeared and I didn’t get to see the show (I did get some Matilda-based swag as compensation though, so every cloud).
Fast-forward to 2018, which marks three decades since the publication of Roald Dahl‘s much-loved tale, and I’m finally sitting in Manchester’s Palace Theatre waiting for Matilda to begin. We’re informed of a late start (amounting to a mere 20-minute delay) but nothing will dampen my spirits – not even the prospect of legging it for the train during Storm Ali.
Pesky technical issues aside, Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s musical adaptation of Dahl’s touching tale is thoroughly worth the wait. The narrative centres on Matilda, a precocious 5-year-old girl with the gift of telekinesis, who loves reading, overcomes obstacles caused by her family and school, and helps her teacher to reclaim her life. It’s a classic tale of the underdog thriving despite tough circumstances – and making friends along the way.
As a huge fan of Minchin, I’m not surprised that the songs and lyrics are superb. Minchin possesses an innate ability to tell stories through music with just the right dose of silliness and poignancy. Stand out songs are Naughty, This Little Girl and the hilarious opener, Miracle. Director Matthew Warchus has done a sterling job and they’ve clearly had a right laugh in the process. Even when it gets dark – and the show, as Dahl would’ve have wanted, is certainly not afraid to explore gloomier themes – there is always hope and much-needed hilarity.
Rob Howell’s colourful letter box stage is a feast for the imagination and transforms from playground to library to classroom and back again so seamlessly it’s as if by magic. The illusions, created by magician Paul Kieve, delight children and adults alike and are utterly spell-bounding.
The cast are stellar and handle energetic choreography, created by Peter Darling, with ease – evident during the stunning When I Grow Up which will have you wondering just where your inner child has toddled off to. But the stand-out performance is reserved for Sophia Ally who, in the titular role, gives a thoroughly captivating performance that would rival anyone thrice her age. I marvelled at her ability to command a stage, dance, remember all those lines – Matilda is a genius after all – and remain so composed. The child actors in this production are a talented bunch.
Craige Els is equally brilliant in the role of Miss Trunchball and plays the evil headmistress with the right amount of comedy and fear – and those eyebrows are on point. Further stand-out performances include Sebastien Torkia as Matilda’s crass, abandoning, wheeler-dealer father, Carly Thoms as the kindly, put-upon Miss Honey and Michelle Chantelle Hopewell as Mrs Phelps, the librarian, who becomes enthralled by Matilda’s vivid story-telling. Matthew Caputo’s Michael Wormwood is also incredibly funny. The standing ovation received by the cast was extremely well-deserved.
Matilda: The Musical is everything I wished it would be – and more. I was worried that, because I am such a huge fan of the book (and enjoyed the film adaptation), I’d dislike the changes made to the narrative but I needn’t have worried. Although Kelly’s revision does stray slightly from the original source material, it’s true enough to Dahl’s tale that it retains all its charm. There’s a danger with big shows embarking on regional tours that they won’t be as spectacular as their West End/Broadway counterparts but Matilda is a true show-stopper.
Every detail from the set to the direction, performances and music is faultless and the team have done this award-winning show absolute justice. I’d heard it was good – I just hadn’t been prepared for just how phenomenal, funny, tear-jerking, and truly magical it was.
(Main image: RSC Matilda: The Musical UK Ireland Tour. Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Matilda: The Musical is on at the Palace Theatre in Manchester until November 24, 2018.