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.