Last week, Roald Dahl would have turned 103. An author who has been able to speak to kids and grown-ups alike all over the world; many of his characters are children who defy the half-witted and villainous adults in their lives. None, perhaps, is more heroic than Matilda. Inspired by his last full-length children’s book, Matilda the Musical tells the story of the brave and brilliant bookworm, Matilda Wormwood, whose intelligence and ingenuity make her a giant force to be reckoned with.
A great adaptation should have an active engagement with the material. Playwright Dennis Kelly remains faithful to Dahl’s inventive characters, whilst bringing his own dark yet comic idiosyncrasies to bear on the material, something that serves to enhance the original story. Similarly, Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics are both faithful yet expressive, showing an obvious respect to the original source, whilst giving the stage version a new flavour that will revive young readers’ interest in the wonderful world of Roald Dahl.
Theatre has the power to go beyond magic, however, just like Matilda is unable to defeat the Trunchbull on her own, the power of storytelling relies on a combination of factors. Matthew Warchus’ direction, Peter Darling’s choreography and Laurie Perkins’ orchestra, work in tandem to sink the audience into the various imaginary worlds. Paul Kieve’s illusions keep the set pieces from the book that continue to delight audiences (Miss Trunchbull hammer-throwing children by their plaits, and the infamous chocolate cake scene), and Rob Howell’s set and costume design not only provide the literal building blocks of the story, but successfully take Quentin Blake’s illustrations straight from page to stage. Plus, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting and Simon Baker’s sound must be some of the best to be seen on the West End.
Whilst all the cast do a phenomenal job, it’s impossible not to single out Francesca McKeown, who makes her West End debut as the extraordinary Matilda – proving that age and experience don’t dictate talent. McKeown is the quintessential champion for justice, perfectly capturing Matilda’s thrilling combination of intelligence, coolness under pressure and flair for the dramatic. Having psychic and telekinetic powers, and using them to thwart evil, Matilda has a superhero quality to her; yet what the story suggests is that real superpowers are intelligence, ingenuity and bravery to stand up for what’s right. It’s also a thought-provoking lesson about female rage. How often are little girls or even grown women allowed to channel their anger in popular culture or literature? Yet here it shows how effective it can be when channelled thoughtfully, giving Matilda an extra strength and source of fuel to allow her to seek revenge and justice.
An unmissable love song to a classic novel, Matilda the Musical is a fantastic way to celebrate Roald Dahl day and bring his stories to a new generation. Now, if this reviewer can be excused; there’s an overwhelming desire for some chocolate cake!
Tickets for this show were kindly provided by London Box Office. Remember to join our Facebook group Bargain Theatre from Upper Circle to be kept up to date with the best offers from a variety of ticket providers.