After five years, Matilda Wormwood had read Great Expectations, could do complex multiplication and could move things with her eyeballs.
In five years in the West End, the musical Matilda has been almost as prodigious, winning scores of trophies including seven Olivier Awards, five Whatsonstage.com Awards and four Tony Awards in the US.
As is fitting of an adaptation of Roald Dahl story, what impresses the most is its boundless imagination – from Tim Minchin’s witty lyrics in the original songs to set and costume designer Rob Howell’s stunningly inventive staging, which goes from framing the stage in fetching lettered blocks to incorporating school desks, a library, the Trunchbull’s lair, Miss Honey’s cottage, gym class and the Wormwood’s home.
Elegant bits of staging pop up more frequently than a game of whack-a-mole. It really is a marvel.
For those not familiar with Dahl’s superlative children’s novel, this is the story of a gifted little girl who is sneered at by her parents and a beastly headteacher and who overcomes it all with quiet resolve, a little mischief and the power of telekinesis.
Dennis Kelly’s adaptation handles the transformation from the page to a fully-fledged musical beautifully, retaining the spirit, wicked humour and unique language of Dahl while also gilding it with fitting songs and neatly weaving in an extra story-within-the-story thread about an acrobat and an escapologist which lends the author’s slim print volume some extra dramatic heft.
Dahl’s magic and manic imagination translates to the stage in some deftly choreographed set pieces which are like illusions in their own right. You’ll be left wondering just how Bruce Bogtrotter ate all that cake or, most wondrously, how Miss Trunchbull’s feat of lobbing Amanda Fripp across the playground is achieved so convincingly.
In fact the production is so slick it almost threatens to steamroller most of the performances but the talented cast of adult and child performers, led by the young Sara Sheen as Matilda, never missed a step and did their utmost to make an impression on the audience.
Thankfully, one or two characters do get that opportunity. Craige Els’ former Olympic hammer-thrower turned child-hating headmistress Miss Trunchbull is every bit the menacing, evil joy you would hope for – straight from the pages of the book – and Michael Begley seems to be having a lot of fun as the cartoony spiv Mr Wormwood.
If this version of Matilda were a child, it would now be old enough to be just starting school and it would be going straight to the top of the class.
Matilda the Musical is at the Cambridge Theatre. Go to matildathemusical.com
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