There’s no better way to say it, Matilda is a bloody ripper of a show. If you love musical theatre, if you don’t, it doesn’t really matter. If you can’t find joy in this brilliant conflux of musical theatre expertise, well then you’ve probably got a cold, black heart.
Okay, that might sound like a bit of an overstatement, but let’s look at it more closely. Based on the hugely popular book of the same name, written by the late Roald Dahl – an author lauded as one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century – the base material for this musical is already considered to be one of the best children’s novels of all time. Telling the tale of an extraordinarily talented five-year-old, the titular Matilda, who despite being largely mistreated and neglected by her parents, teaches herself not only to read and spell, but how to serve retaliation on both her dim and uncaring parents, and the tyrannical headmistress of her school. It’s a wickedly charming diversion on the usual scenarios played out in children’s literature, giving it as much appeal for adults as it does for kids.
The authors of this adaptation, writer Dennis Kelly and composer-lyricist, Australia’s own Tim Minchin, were blessed with blue-chip source materials to begin with – so they’ve ensured to honour those credentials with a truly beautiful and cared-for piece of music theatre mastery. Kelly’s script weaves all the core plot elements of Dahl’s novel into a elegantly balanced pair of acts that release the story in a wholly satisfying way, while Minchin’s songs carry the plot along both melodically and literally.
While Minchin’s comedy work has demonstrated his lyrical genius ably before, the craft of his song-writing in this score is as lyrically skilful as anything written by the likes of Sondheim, if not more so – the perfect example being his use of the alphabet in ‘School Song’. For every slickly worded number, there’s a equally euphonious tune, to send you home with an ear worm, such as in ‘Revolting Children’, ‘When I Grow Up’ and ‘Naughty’.
For a show where kids largely carry the plot and are relied upon to lead the story, Director Matthew Warchus makes working with children look like a doddle. If there’s ever been a cast of more spirited, hard-working and invested child actors in a musical, I’ve not seen them. These kids put every ounce of their beings into their roles, and into Peter Darling’s brightly animated and spunky choreography, setting the bar at a level that likewise elevates the adult ensemble to sparkling and fearless heights of performance. It’s infectious enthusiasm that blasts out across the auditorium, making the whole experience a joy.
On opening night, the title role was played with delicious precociousness by Ingrid Torelli who along with Kathleen Lawlor as her cheeky best friend Lavender and Daniel Stow as the wonderfully gluttonous Bruce, lead the rest of the nine-strong cast of child characters to make Melbourne’s production of Matilda as good as any on Broadway or the West End. Their contribution can’t be underestimated. The kids’ roles in Matilda are as significant and numbered as the adult roles, so they bear as much, if not more of the burden to entertain audiences.
That being said, the adult cast is pretty superlative too, lead by James Millar as the exquisitely cruel and repressive Miss Trunchbull, the school principal and phys-ed teacher who spits bitter venom with hilariously hateful rancour. Millar relishes every bit of the former hammer-throw champion’s nasty dialogue and makes both the cast and audience wither in her presence. By contrast, Elise McCann’s Miss Honey, is as perfectly sweet and charming as her name would suggest. Warchus knows how to place a scene to give the maximum emotional impact and McCann engages his direction to heart-rending effect. Cle Morgan as Jamaican librarian Mrs Phelps, also helps push the tear-jerking moments along in a charmingly comedic style.
Matilda’s marvellously uncaring parents are brought to wacky life by Marika Aubrey and Daniel Frederiksen. Being so extraordinarily negligent and self-involved as characters, they could easily fall into the trap of being hackneyed, but Aubrey and Frederiksen bring a skewed sense of reality to the roles that make them both the most painfully and splendidly atrocious mother and father any child could have the misfortune of receiving. Both get their opportunity to shine, Aubrey in the thoroughly nutty Latin number, ‘Loud’, and Frederiksen in the interval pre-entr’acte crowd-pleaser ‘Telly’.
Technical aspects of this staging are all sublimely executed and the Australian touring production sees no noticeable dilution of standards from it’s forebears. Rob Howell’s scrabble tile inspired set design bubbles out across the proscenium and into the auditorium, immersing the audience, while his costumes are technicolour delights (in the case of the Wormwood’s) through to gloomily masochistic monstrosities (as worn by Miss Trunchbull). Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone is precise, perfect and unobtrusive, it even brings life to a pong! Further, it’s a complete pleasure to see the entire 11-piece orchestra given their chance for an on-stage bow at curtain call.
If you have children old enough to read any of Roald Dahl’s classic kids’ books, then you owe them the treat of seeing Matilda brought to life so splendidly on stage. The worst thing that can be said about this production is that it took far too long (five years) to make its way into a theatre in its composer’s homeland. Here’s hoping the next show to be conjured by this expert team of musical makers – the stage adaptation of 1993 film Groundhog Day – finds its way here in a speedier fashion, because after this taste of their talent, we simply can’t wait another five years to see the next musical theatre masterpiece of our generation.
Matilda the Musical is now playing at The Princess Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District.
Images: James Morgan and James Terry