The story of Matilda could perhaps be described as what would happen if Supernanny turned power hungry and got given the keys to a school. Headmistress Miss Trunchbull (James Millar) is a domineering, large-bosomed, and rather stern figure. She alternately pounds about the stage like a giant woken up too early in the morning, and prances like a rhythmic gymnast putting a show on for the judges. (Indeed, she has experience in that regard, being a medal-holder for England in the hammer throw.) She is also given to comparing the children under her care to Satan, among other things, and locking them in a place called “the Chokey”, when their behaviour has been, as Supernanny would say, unasseptible. All are terrified, including Miss Honey (Elise McCann), a kindly teacher who wishes only the best for her students, and whose teaching methods, as her name suggests, are the antithesis of Trunchbull’s educational trade.
Matilda (in this performance Bella Thomas), however, is not. She is a precocious and justly mischievous child, determined to read her books even if her two parents the Wormwoods (Marika Aubrey and Daniel Frederiksen) think it abnormal that a child would not want to watch the telly, and ridicule her for it. Her one haven from all the pressures in her life is the library, where she tells engrossing stories to Mrs Phelps (Cle Morgan), that perhaps have origins a bit more heartfelt than merely the figments of her large imagination…
Books and letters are what Matilda is all about, visually. The Lyric Theatre at The Star is your general default proscenium arch, but for this production the entire arch has been covered in a potluck assortment of Scrabble letter squares, all of differing fonts and sizes and colours. One of the joys of waiting for the show to start is looking to find the words (usually thematic) that have been “hidden” in this alphabetic menagerie. The set itself (Rob Howell) doesn’t involve huge and luxurious backdrops, but more a few select items for each scene that, along with some rather effective lighting, create an engrossing atmosphere.
One example of the set – and there are slight spoilers to be had for one of the shows’ best numbers here – is when Matilda arrives at the gates of the school on her first day with her class, all of them optimistic about how “special” they are. The older students from higher years run at the gate from the other side like prisoners reaching out through the bars to new inmates, and sing of the terror that awaits (“School Song”). They clamber up and down this randomly-squared door (looking like a hollow Mondrian painting), and inspire fear in the hearts of all the small children. The choreography here (Brendan Yates) is impressive enough, but then the song morphs into a recitation of the alphabet. (And so you think you’re A-ble/To survive this mess/by B-eing a prince or a princess…) As each letter is hit, a block is pushed through an empty square in the door with that letter on it, and one of the two male dancers jumps on it, climbing ever higher and higher as more blocks are pushed underneath them. It is one of the best combinations of dance and song I have seen in musical theatre for quite some time.
Tim Minchin has written the lyrics for the show, and it, well, shows. They are complex and the melodies often take one of his right-angled turns. (There’s even a mention of the TARDIS, which warmed the cockles of this Doctor Who fan’s heart.) One of Miss Honey’s songs (“This Little Girl”) reminded me somewhat of Sondheim’s rapid patter, especially that from Sunday in the Park With George. The songs are also touching and funny, and rise above the general sense of feeling that they’re going for, both in their more rapid moments, and also the serene.
The only time it lags is in the beginning, and that is more because the irony and mischief that runs throughout has not had time to kick in yet. (The opening scene is straight satire of doting parents at a children’s party, and can seem a bit over the top at times, without any particular cleverness to it.)
The cast is spot on, hitting the caricatures with perfect aplomb. Bella Thomas as Matilda, as well, is extremely believable, with – as the title of the show suggests – a lot of stage time and nowhere particularly to hide. She comes across as an intelligent child, and not, as often times one finds with child actors, a child playing a child. (There is often a way that some child actors say lines that is only forgivable because they are a child actor. Here this was never a problem.) Mrs Wormwood is a force to be reckoned with (and how fun it would have been to see her interact with Miss Trunchbull, although Roald Dahl, author of the novel this is based on, never let that happen). Miss Trunchbull herself, one of the main sources of comedy for the evening, as well as the night’s terror, is played to excess perfection, never quite tipping over into ridiculousness but always well within ridicule.
The music is hidden in the back, or underneath, or somewhere where the audience can only hear (unlike other musicals of late that have placed the band at the back of the stage, like for Dirty Dancing). It is both peppy and sweet, depending on the song, and had a sound that was fuller than one would expect for the limited size of the orchestra.
All in all, a very fine production that will not disappoint. You can expect laughs, perhaps a tear, and perhaps even a little bit of magic.
This is a marvellous show that I cannot recommend highly enough.
Matilda is now playing at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney.
For more details http://au.matildathemusical.com/
Photos by James Morgan.