Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s wonderful adaption of Dahl’s magical story lives up to the hype.
Rumours of the death of musical theatre have been greatly exaggerated it seems. Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s blockbusting adaptation of Roald Dahl’s cherished children’s book Matilda demonstrates that the art of creating intelligent, well crafted, elating musicals that leave the brain fizzing, the heart pounding and the face aching from uncontrollable grinning is alive and well.
Finally arriving Down Under, hype ahead of the opening of this show at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre could hardly have been greater and with good reason. Matilda the Musical has proven to be an unstoppable critical and box office smash-hit since it premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010 before its wildly successful transfers to London’s West End and New York’s Broadway. It has also earned more awards than virtually any other production in living memory, including a record breaking seven Olivier Awards and five Tonys. Nothing, since perhaps Billy Elliot, has come anywhere close to reaching the same dizzying levels of acclaim and unanimous adoration that this new musical has had heaped upon it.
And the secret of this indestructible success? It’s undoubtedly this story’s combination of joy, tenderness, hilarity and excitement, underpinned by Minchin’s toe-tapping, but never overly earnest songs and Kelly’s wry and superbly judged dialogue that, almost inexplicably, manage to deepen the magic and charm of Dahl’s fantastical narrative. The show, which tells the story of the precocious and prodigiously intelligent Matilda Wormwood as she discovers secret gifts and tries to overcome the tyranny of neglectful parents and a monstrous headmistress, begins with a song titled Miracle, and there could hardly be a more apt description of Minchin and Kelly’s creation. Clearly in this partnership, producers the Royal Shakespeare Company have stumbled upon that special alchemy – like that of Gilbert and Sullivan, Rogers and Hammerstein, Schönberg and Boubil – that allows a flawless synergy to exist between music and theatre. There’s a real sense of creative fertility about this show, a sense that through working together the talents of both Minchin and Kelly have been nourished and allowed to thrive in a magnificent way.
Bella Thomas as Matilda
This story also has a beautiful and eloquently articulated moral, extolling the virtues of intelligence and reading over mindless telly-addiction, and the power of kindness over cruelty. These might sound like ominously weighty subjects, but this sharp-witted, nimble show pairs these big ideas with just the right amount of good ol’ fashioned silliness that will keep both children and adults enraptured. As the heroine of this show points out, “sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.” That’s not to say there aren’t moments of extreme tenderness as well, such as Miss Honey’s heart-breaking song about living an impoverished life in a shed, Home, or – for my money at least – one of the most spell-binding songs in the whole show, Quiet. This breath-stealingly still moment where Matilda begins to understand the magnitude of her abilities, is surely fated to become one of those songs, like Les Misérables’ Castle on a Cloud, which is a favourite with young aspiring performers.
Of course the ability of this show to communicate lays with the strength of its cast, but finding performers young enough to pass for five-years-old while able to sing, act and dance with excellent ability is a knotty challenge. With such a large number of children in the show this production has multiple casts, and director Matthew Warchus’ chosen ensemble for opening night delivered a hugely persuasive account. Particularly impressive is the taut precision of Peter Darling’s choreography, executed with such dexterity that in the larger full-cast numbers the adult performers are almost indistinguishable from the children.
Bella Thomas, shouldering the responsibility of portraying the title role on opening night, delivered a sturdy performance, with a charming and charismatic mix of solemnity and mischief. Her clear, bright voice, and confident delivery was impressively adept, and if there were perhaps a few tiny hints here and there of nerves getting the best of her these will surely iron out as this run continues. Certainly Thomas has set the bar very high for the other three young performers also portraying Matilda during this opening Sydney season.
Daniel Frederiksen and Marika Aubrey are perfectly tasteless in their gaudy, over-the-top pantomime delivery as Matilda’s horrible parents, where by contrast Elise McCann is a sweetly gentle Miss Honey.
But whereas Matilda’s parents are guilty of self-centred neglect, her true nemesis, the sadistic, brutish Miss Trunchbull is the real villain of this show. James Millar delivers a wicked mix of psychotic barbarity, icy cruelty and deliberately dodgy drag that riles and delights in equal measure. It’s been a while since a show so beautifully realised, so filled with poignancy and unrestrained joy, so deserving of the hype has found its way to Australian shores. If previous achievements are anything to go by, a trip to the bookies to place a few bets on the results of next year’s Helpmann’s could be a dead cert.
This review was originally published on August 21, 2015. Matilda plays at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre until July 31.