Tag Archives: Dennis Kelly

Girl Powers


Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 5th July, 2018


The Royal Shakespeare Company’s most successful production ever comes to Birmingham for the summer, making itself at home in the Hippodrome, just 20-odd miles from its point of origin in Stratford upon Avon.  It’s been a few years since I last saw it and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to be reminded of its brilliance.

Based on one of Roald Dahl’s novels for children, it contains a host of grotesque characters – gifts for any actor!  – monstrous, unreasonable adults in contrast with our clear-thinking, upright young heroine.  Matilda’s parents (Sebastian Torkia and Rebecca Thornhill) are cruel in their selfishness and neglect of the little girl they don’t know how to handle; Torkia comes into his own with a paeon to television to open the second act, while Thornhill gets to demonstrate her moves with some wild ballroom dancing, accompanied by a snake-hipped Matt Gillett as Rudolpho, her instructor – it’s like Strictly on too much sugar.  The most grotesque of them all is, of course, sadistic headmistress Miss Trunchbull, in a show-stealing performance by Craige Els.  It’s a delicious role, and Els makes a meal of it.

They’re not all horrible.  Matilda finds succour from her friendly neighbourhood librarian, the attentive Mrs Phelps (Michelle Chantelle Hopewell) and especially from her teacher, Miss Honey (Carly Thoms).  Thoms brings the right amount of mousiness to the part as Miss Honey develops a backbone, without being insipid or overly sentimental.

But the night belongs to the children.  No one elicits quality performances from young actors like the RSC, and this current troupe keep the bar held high.  Among the class, some stand out (although they are all disciplined, committed, and talented!): Dylan Hughes’s cake-guzzling Bruce, Madeline Gilby’s spirited Lavender…  And, above all, a breathtakingly commanding performance from Lara Cohen in the title role, often holding the stage on her own.  It’s incredible – with Cohen’s skills almost matching her character’s superpowers (Matilda is a kind of benevolent Carrie!)

Dennis Kelly’s book is redolent with Roald Dahl fun and nastiness, while Tim Minchin’s score is charming and clever, with plenty of good tunes – my favourite being the wistfully bittersweet When I Grow Up, joyfully presented on playground swings.  Director Matthew Warchus elicits broad playing from his colourful cast.  This is larger-than-life stuff, the stuff, indeed, of storybooks, but Matilda has no problem working her magic on young and old audience members alike.

29-RSC Matilda The Musical UK & Ireland Tour. Lara Cohen (Matilda). Photo Manuel Harlan.

One for the books: Lara Cohen as Matilda (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Double Whammy


Derby Theatre, Friday 5th February, 2016


The Hour Before We Knew Nothing of Each Other

Peter Handke’s unconventional piece is based on the idea of sitting in a café and watching the world go by. The people we glimpse, their lives, moods, situations, we can only guess at – some more accurately than others. And so the cast give us a ceaseless parade of characters and character types, coming and going, and it is for us as beholders to look for meaning, to read each vignette as it flits by. It’s an interesting and engaging idea. Wordless and plotless, the show excites our fascination with people-watching and our need to impose narrative and order in the world. Some things we glimpse are more readable than others: a young woman walks by, smiling proudly at the huge potted plant she carries, a man brings on a roll of carpet… Other moments are symbolic: a blindfolded figure walks through a group of bobbing dancers, stilling them as she passes… Other times are more abstract or surreal. There is always a tension that something might happen, that a thumbnail sketch will develop into incident with consequences and aftermath. Some figures recur – there is a running joke of a man with a broom trying to keep the stage clean, an exercise in futility.

Technically, it is brilliant. A challenge for the stage management team with so many cues and props to handle, to get on and off to keep the action seamless. The pace never lets up; this show is slick and the energy never flags. There are moments of beauty, moments of clowning, and the comings and goings shed light on as much as they obscure about aspects of the human experience. As a piece of physical theatre, it impresses, and stimulates the imagination – until the time runs out and it stops. The experience will be different for each of us, in much the same way that no two people can ever read the same book. I enjoy the parade but it’s not the kind of thing I’d sit through twice.


The second part of this double bill is Dennis Kelly’s more conventional drama about teenage bullying that turns to tragedy. A gang hounds a boy to his death and try to cover-up his disappearance by framing a local man for the boy’s abduction. It’s a kind of cross between Lord of the Flies and Blue Remembered Hills. Emily Pell’s Leah handles lengthy monologues well, trying to provoke a response from her taciturn boyfriend, Phil (Mitchell Robbins). She even tries to throttle herself, in a delightfully comic moment. It is Phil who masterminds the plan to cover their tracks – Robbins could do with being more menacing when imposing his will. Dillon North gives an enjoyably funny portrayal of the wimpy crying Brian, later going to the opposite extreme due to medication. Harry Smith impresses as new boy John Tate – it’s a pity his character disappears halfway through, and I also enjoy Angus Pickering as Richard and Chelsea Watts as Jan. The ensemble handle Kelly’s naturalistic dialogue with aplomb, and the entire show is stylishly presented. The woodland setting is not only where the action takes place but representative of the dark place in which the kids find themselves. Charlie Brentnall’s Adam, the victim of the piece, twitches and rambles a bit like Poor Tom in King Lear – you’d think his hair would be messier though after his ordeal!

Kelly’s neat thriller has plenty of dark humour but is ultimately a bleak view of humanity, showing how peer pressure can lead people down the wrong path at the cost of individual well-being – for the victim and the perpetrators alike.

A thoroughly enjoyable and captivating evening at Derby Theatre, with Theatre Arts students working alongside theatre professionals to give us a high standard of thought-provoking entertainment.


Mitchell Robbins and Emily Pell (Photo: Steve Gresty)