Friday, 4 October 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: Matilda the Musical

Cambridge Theatre, London

21 September 2013

now booking until December 2014

Matilda the Musical at the Cambridge Theatre
Photo: Laura Peatman

Matilda the Musical is one of the most talked-about musicals of the last few years, finding unprecedented success at the 2012 Oliviers with seven awards (since equalled by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, one of my other all-time favourite shows). With the genius of Tim Minchin, enthusiasm of a young cast, mad costumes and brilliant staging, this is one of those shows where everything comes together to create magic. Forget the film, this is how the story of Matilda should be told.

Even the opening set that greets the audience on arrival establishes a sense of fun, with countless colourful wooden blocks that sprawl across the back wall and out of the proscenium arch, seemingly random but actually delightfully concealing words if you look carefully enough. This level of detail is present throughout, making it feel that real love and warmth has gone into this production. Everything from Mr Wormwood's suit, to the children's messy hairstyles, to the wide array of CCTV in Trunchbull's office has been carefully thought out and contributes to a show that just works, in the best way possible. 'School Song', with the alphabet hidden within the lyrics, is brilliantly staged, as letter blocks appear in the school gates just a split second before a chorus member steps onto it: it must have taken hours of rehearsal but appears effortless, as all great routines should.

There's a risk that a young cast, however talented, can appear precocious and start to grate a little: no fear of that here, as all the children are fantastic and complete naturals on stage. I can't think of many things more fun than being a kid in this show, and to be quite honest I'm immensely jealous of them all. Their singing, acting, and probably above all their dancing, put a huge smile on my face from start to finish  and when they rock out to 'Revolting Children', it confirms that they really are the stars here. At this particular performance, George King as Bruce Bogtrotter stole the show with his hilarious acting and rockstar-worthy opening to 'Revolting Children', while tiny Freddie Haggerty stole our hearts as Eric. Georgia Pemberton, in her first month as Matilda, took on the leading lady duties and is evidently proving herself a great addition to the cast. She is funny, heart-warming and mischievous, and at times heart-rending. And her Russian is impeccable, of course... (I'm not going to explain that one  no spoilers!). The role of Matilda has a lot of time alone on stage, and to pull this off at such a young age is undoubtedly impressive – and I'm sure the memories of receiving the applause in her solo curtain call will stay with all the Matildas for a long time, whatever their future career path.

Photo: Ben Tavener
Elsewhere the Wormwoods (James Clyde and Kay Murray) and Rudolpho (Joshua Lay, utterly unrecognisable from his headshot in the programme!) provide plenty of hilarity, while Alex Gaumond is fabulously horrible, and more than a little creepy, as the notorious Miss Trunchbull. The cast have great fun with the height difference between him and the children, and every movement and flinch is perfectly timed to create this funny but disturbing baddie.

There is some pretty puerile humour here – Bruce's prolonged description of his chocolatey belch springs to mind – but the show somehow still doesn't feel childish. About children yes; great for children to watch, also yes; but despite all this there's emotion in it that certainly appeals to adults as well. The shadow puppetry of the acrobat and the escapologist is simply beautiful, while the poignant scenes between Matilda and her parents really do tug at the heartstrings. Overarching the whole production is a great sense of being a child, being 'Naughty', and being free from rules and expectations, summed up in the gorgeous 'When I Grow Up', with its use of slides, swings and scooters. Matilda is surely the best new musical of recent years, and one that I could watch again and again and carry on smiling at. Fingers crossed it will stay in the West End for many more years to come!

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