Back in late 2010, I was fortunate enough to get hold of virtually the last two tickets available for the original twelve week run of the new musical of ‘Matilda’ by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. There had been a steadily growing volume of whispers that this was something special, that something exceptional had burst onto the stage. As I’d been thoroughly warned before the tickets were sold to me, my view of the stage from these last seats was partially restricted and required some awkward straining to see the action properly. Despite this, we were only one or two numbers into the show when my companion and I looked at each other thinking the same thing: West End, without a doubt. Matilda was indeed something truly special.
In March 2011 it was wonderful to hear that it was indeed getting its big break and moving to the West End. I couldn’t wait to see it again (and the same applies even after a second viewing). It was exciting to discover that Matilda was every bit as fantastic as I remembered, when I saw it on a damp Saturday evening recently at the West End’s Cambridge Theatre.
Even before the original production opened, any fool could recognise that Tim Minchin was an ideal choice to write the lyrics and music; a perfect match with the quirky, imaginative, edgy children’s books from Roald Dahl. One of the most exciting aspects is that unlike a single one of the numerous film versions of Roald Dahl’s books throughout the years, this production absolutely and gloriously captures the spirit of Dahl’s writing for children. We all know that his writing is notoriously inventive, funny, exciting and dark, all at the same time. Most adaptations seem unable to resist over-emphasising the humour, adding in a hefty dose of queasy Disneyesque sentiment and eliminating the dark and cheeky aspects - and thus lose everything that makes Dahl’s work so brilliant and so beloved round the world. Just as one of the key musical numbers states, ‘sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty’ – Matilda keeps that element of mischief and is all the better for it.
All the musical numbers are irresistible, with inventive lyrics and rousing tunes with a high level of musical sophistication at the same time. Numbers such as ‘When I Grow Up’ might at first glance appear to be funny songs sung by naïve children, with lyrics such as “when I grow up/ I will eat sweets every day…”. It quickly becomes clear that it is actually aimed at the adult audience, as the lyrics develop into lines such as “when I grow up,/ I will be smart enough to answer all/ The questions that you need to know/ The answers to before you're grown up”. Accompanied by a beautiful balletic sequence on large swings from the ceiling which appear to arch right out into the audience, it does not fail to bring poignant lumps to the throat.
Characterisations, too, are spot on. Miss Honey looks exactly like the Quentin Blake drawings which most people will be familiar with. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood epitomise those characters skilfully and David Leonard as the horrendous Agatha Trunchbull is glorious and outrageous, utterly hilarious and scary all at once. Children playing key roles in any show can be a tricky business; all of us have had the misfortune to see horribly cringeworthy over-precocious performances at some point. With such a quantity of children in key roles, Matilda runs these risks more than most, especially since the main role is intended to be a somewhat precocious character – but I have never been more impressed, both times, with a young cast. The performances are pitched perfectly and the young actors and actresses have maintained that key realism factor. The genuine element of shyness on the face of the young girl playing Matilda when receiving her applause at the end only added to that feeling.
Just as in Dahl’s books as well, sentiment is played with a light touch and is all the more moving for it. The charming final minute and exit of Matilda and Miss Honey is handled beautifully and only encourages the roars of approval and cheers from the audience as soon as the curtain falls. A brilliant addition to the Stratford production was the entire cast coming on for their curtain calls on scooters, all interweaving in lovely choreographed patterns.
As we stepped out onto the street and started heading off into the rain, a random cry of ‘BACKWARD!’ rang out from a cheeky fellow theatregoer getting into a taxi. Look, you have to see it to understand … but you also have to see it because it’s unmissable. I feel the same after a repeat viewing; this is my favourite West End show of all time.