Matilda The Musical

Roald Dahl, book by Dennis Kelly, music & lyrics by Tim Minchin
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Alhambra, Bradford
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This musical version of Roald Dahl’s much-loved Matilda is not far off the tenth anniversary of its première at the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre and, while the West End transfer recently clocked up its 3000th performance at the Cambridge Theatre, this regional tour settles in at Bradford’s Alhambra for a month.

For those unfamiliar with the children’s book—one of Dahl’s last works published during his lifetime—or the 1996 Danny DeVito film, this is the story of preternaturally gifted five-year-old Matilda Wormwood, who bemuses her dance competition-obsessed mother (Rebecca Thornhill) and gloriously spivvy father (Sebastien Torkia) with her love of books and intellectual conversation.

It’s a finely observed flip to have the grotesque parents obsessed with the TV and bemoaning their daughter’s interest in storytelling, wishing she’d spend more time in front of the gogglebox. “The sooner you’re locked up in school the better”, snarls her father.

Matilda finds friends and allies in the librarian, Mrs Phelps (Michelle Chantelle Hopewell), and her teacher Miss Honey (the wonderful Carly Thoms), who are entranced by, and encourage, her way with words and enquiring mind. But then Miss Trunchbull enters the scene.

Stepping straight from a Quentin Blake illustration—deftly evoked by Rob Howell’s costume design—Elliot Harper sneers and struts as the butch headmistress and the character’s introductory number, “The Hammer”, is as good a showcase as any of Harper’s pantomimic power. He doesn’t get boos, quite, but you can definitely hear the echoes of David Leonard, long-time favourite of the York Theatre Royal pantomime, who took a couple of years’ sabbatical from that villainous role to play Trunchbull in the West End. Big shoes to fill, but Harper is up to the task.

While the adults all acquit themselves marvellously well, the absolute stars of the piece are the children in the cast, whose energetic choreography and pitch-perfect singing can’t help but put a grin on your face. The varied and inventive staging is given vigour and élan by the cast.

And while the whole ensemble is mightily impressive, it’s impossible to review this without an awestruck mention of the title role, shared between several performers but on the night I saw it played by Nicola Turner. She handles such a range of witty, intricate dialogue with ease and holds the stage magnificently as Matilda weaves her stories. Also energetically throwing herself into the group choreography, Turner gives a remarkable performance of this challenging role.

Having written at least one play aimed at younger actors, but with deep undercurrents of darkness and danger in much of his work, Dennis Kelly proves a skilful adaptor. It’s the small, finely-spun details of his writing which wring the most from Dahl’s original: Matilda responding breezily to the librarian that, yes, her parents are proud of her, when we know for a fact this is not the case.

Tim Minchin’s music is tuneful and packed with nuance. Mrs Honey’s number, “Pathetic”, in which she summons up the courage to knock on the door of the intimidating headmistress’s office is evocative of Sondheim in its deceptive, slightly off-beat jauntiness, but for the most part these are poppier, melodic, catchy numbers which mesh together in some skilful and delightful counterpoint.

“The School Song” is ingenious, and “Loud” gives Rebecca Thornhill a chance to belt out a tune—while also executing some hilariously OTT choreography with dance partner Rudolpho (the impressively flexible Matt Gillett).

There are no real tearjerkers in the show, but “When I Grow Up” contains the kind of ironic yet warm wisdom only possible from an adult who’s kept a child-like ability to view the world at a slight skew—just as Dahl had at his very best.

Mark Smith