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Girl Powers

MATILDA

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)

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Little Dahlings

Matilda
Cambridge Theatre, London, Saturday 21st January, 2012

Revolting children! – This is the title of one of the songs and usually my reaction to child actors on stage. Somehow, the RSC has put together a troupe of young performers that blows away all preconceptions of the quality and nature of the beast. They present a quadruple threat: they act, sing, dance AND they’re young.

The production survives the transfer from the RSC’s Courtyard and its thrust stage to the Cambridge’s 1930s proscenium with very few changes to the staging. Inevitably some of the immediacy of the experience is reduced because of the fourth wall, but this is still a funny, inventive and, perhaps unexpectedly so, very moving show.

Based on a Roald Dahl novel, its themes are beyond those that appear on the surface. Bad parenting is not just neglect and abuse. The opening number brilliantly satirises the kind of middle class breeder who brings their offspring up in the belief that they are a miracle, or a princess, only to give the world a generation of brats whose overinflated view of themselves leads to delinquency. These parents have the gall to blame teachers who accurately report that the child is less than perfect. This is the most pertinent comment the show makes on education. Elsewhere, opposing philosophies are polarised: Miss Trunchbull’s tyranny is contrasted with Miss Honey’s syrupy child-centred approach.

But this is not just a show about child-rearing and schooling. There is much to do with rebellion and civil disobedience, the overthrow of a dictator and the power of the imagination. There is plenty that is scathing about the dumbing-down of culture, with television held largely culpable. There is a beautiful song, performed on playground swings that arc out beyond the proscenium, which gives us a child’s-eye view of what it must be like to be an adult. It is poignant and charming and speaks to everyone. With music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, the score has everything a musical should: Melodic songs with clever, witty lyrics that reveal character and develop plot AND speak to us of the human condition. This is art.

Bertie Carvel as deranged headmistress Agatha Trunchbull gives a colossal performance. Sinister, monstrous and very funny, he is compelling to watch and almost, but not quite, steals the show from the tiny leading lady, Eleanor Worthington-Cox as the eponymous Matilda who is astounding. It’s difficult to heap the praise on her she deserves without sounding patronising. She, and the rest of the children in the company, need to be seen to be believed and I defy anyone to detect anything stilted or parrot-fashion about them.

I really enjoyed Josie Walker and Peter Howe as Matilda’s parents. She is peroxide blonde, mutton dressed as Katie Price and he an oafish, wide boy used car salesman, all mouth and garish trousers. True Dahlian grotesques, their cruelty and selfishness are outrageous, their come-uppance well-deserved. But, as Matilda herself learns, there is more to life than revenge. She rescues her feckless father from a severed drubbing at the hands of the Russian mafia, proving that education indeed has its uses and in a touching moment of forgiveness, teaches him a lesson in humanity.

I make special mention of Gary Watson’s hilarious cameo as Matilda’s mother’s dance partner, Rudolpho but really the entire company is a cut above.

Rob Howell’s set, all building blocks, bookcases, and school desks that come up from the floor, is evocative and versatile. Director Matthew Warchus makes the stage a playground on which the cast have tons of fun. The final image of Miss Honey and Matilda walking off into the sunset, performing one final cartwheel each is beauty, simple and touching.

With its book by Dennis Kelly, Matilda is the best new musical currently in the West End but you may need some of its heroine’s superpowers to get yourself a ticket.