Matilda the Musical – Cambridge Theatre

Image from cambridgetheatrelondon.org

Turn off the telly, hide that microwave meal – it’s time to forget the winter blues and resurrect your inner child.

As well as showcasing a great new piece of British musical theatre, the RSC is offering to remind you of those bedtime story squeals of delight – of pigtail-swinging, superglued trilbies and water jugs adorned with newts. It could only be Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Apparently you can also take along kids…

The secret of adapting a well loved children’s classic is almost certainly not to tinker with the original too much. The addition of music and dance adds an extra dimension to Dahl’s masterpiece, bringing it bang up to date from the opener as the obnoxious kids sing of how “My Mummy thinks I’m a miracle.” Having not read the novel for quite some years, I’d strain to notice what had been edited out (apart from my favourite phrase that Matilda’s parents thought of her as a scab, that they could’t wait to “pick off and flick away”) – but you can’t have everything, and the tone of the original is expertly captured.

The children are suitably flawed and naughty, the parents are brilliantly brash and the trunchbull is a thundering terror. The costumes are reminders of Quentin Blake’s illustrations, which were always inseparable from the Dahl stories. As the headmistress from hell Bertie Carvel manages, with his hunchback, slightly flicked back hand (and scarily feminine legs in a pleated gym skirt) to keep away from the drag queen and stick closer to the classic cartoons.

It is the combination, however, of the cheeky lyrics and music, the staging, choreography and styling that really makes this show a triumph (when you pick your jaw up from the floor after the alphabet song you’ll see what I mean). It may be a child-centred show, but this is an intelligent tale about intelligent people, just packaged in gift wrap for the under fives.

The kids are the centre of this production and do a great job of holding the stage. There was a star solo from Zachary Harris as Bruce Bogtrotter, and they all work together brilliantly with choreography that is impressive without having drilled the joy out of their performances. Dancing on the desks is reminiscent of a juvenile Spring Awakening, and there’s a sense of Spelling Bee too – two modern musicals that it would be hard to get enough of.

What is truly original is bringing the darkness of kids to the mainstream – this subversiveness hasn’t been seen much outside of the fringe, and I have my fingers crossed that it could wake up the mainstream West End to the possibilities of children’s musicals that are more than just sugar & spice. Dahl is the perfect starting point for this – whilst I haven’t seen it, Pasek & Paul have already adapted James and the Giant Peach. Could this open up the field for a London production? Watch this space…

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