REVIEW: ‘Matilda The Musical’, Birmingham Hippodrome

Matilda The Musical‘, Birmingham Hippodrome

  BAMBINATUM EST MAGGITUM – CHILDREN ARE MAGGOTS.

  But Matilda Wormwood is an “exception to the rule”. Born to parents that, quite frankly, could do without her, Matilda finds solace in her books. Unusually smart for a girl her age, her intelligence far surpassing that of her peers, she is initially viewed with suspicion, by students, by headmistress Miss Trunchbull, even by her parents. Matilda befriends librarian Mrs Phelps and teacher Miss Honey, who fights for Matilda’s gifts to be recognised. Refusing to be limited by her age and size, Matilda takes her destiny into her own hands and, a symbol of courage, she teaches us that, sometimes, it’s ok to be “a little bit naughty”.

  ‘Matilda The Musical‘ is an RSC production, directed by Matthew Warchus, based on Roald Dahl‘s classic children’s novel of the same name of 1988, adapted for the stage by Denis Kelly, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. After enjoying initial success in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of the RSC, the show continues to do so on London’s West End, and Broadway, and now embarks on its first UK tour. Led by a cast consisting primarily of young actors, this production is joyously uplifting and, proving popular with children and adults alike, the empowering message of the show resonates with all, reminding us that, despite our size and background, we all have the power to take charge of our own future, to make a difference, and to enforce positive change.

Sebastien Torkia (Mr Wormwood) and Rebecca Thornhill (Mrs Wormwood) in Matilda The Musical. Photo credit: RSC

  The show begins with the birth of Matilda, and examines the disappointments of her parents – of Mrs Wormwood, shocked to discover that she is nine months pregnant, hoping to compete, and win, a dancing competition in Paris later that evening, and her father, Mr Wormwood, who is disappointed with her lack of a “thingie”, that she is not that all-coveted boy. Ostracised from the off, therefore, Matilda grows, finding comfort and escapism in books, as so many of us do. Fast forward five years, to her first day at Crunchem Hall Elementary School, and she certainly sticks out from her peers due to what they believe to be unnatural intelligence, and her keen sense of justice. In fact, it is her ability, her willingness, to speak out for what is right, that brings her to the attention of Headmistress Miss Trunchbull, ex-Olympian, champion of the hammer throw, a beast of a woman, who dreams of a world without children. When speaking up for herself, and protecting others from the Trunchbull, Matilda’s inherent goodness expresses itself in powers of a superhuman nature – namely, telekinesis, allowing her to manipulate inanimate objects without physical interaction. When all is resolved, however, and a satisfying conclusion is reached, Matilda’s powers are no longer required, and she is free to begin a new and better life with the kind and gentle Miss Honey, after the two have formed a particularly close bond.

Lara Cohen (Matilda) in Matilda The Musical. Photo credit: RSC

  The musical is remarkably faithful to Dahl’s novel, dramatically bringing to life the colourful, larger-than-life characters that were originally illustrated by Quentin Blake, and depicts all the iconic scenes contained within this well-loved book, that we all know and love. All aspects of the show fuse together to accurately recreate Dahl’s world, perfectly reflecting his wonderfully weird vision.

  The cast, dominated by younger actors are, as a collective, fantastic, breathing fresh and vibrant life into these memorable characters. Lara Cohen shines in the titular role as the young Matilda and, despite the actor’s own youth, she proves that anybody can take, and own, a leading role in a show of this scale. Her performance is very professional, and she both speaks and sings with an eloquent precision. In fact, her performance is anything BUT little – instead, it is one of power. Her role is complemented by the performances of a larger team of young actors that make up her fellow pupils, with particularly noteworthy performances from Elliot Stiff as Bruce Bogtrotter, and Louella Asante-Owusu as Lavender. These children are certainly not maggots – so young, and yet so talented, their age certainly having no restriction, or bearing, on their talent and ability. During such songs as ‘When I Grow Up’ and ‘Revolting’, the ensemble of children excel, their singing, and their execution of Peter Darling‘s choreography, excellent, with each bringing their own personality and attitude, with just a hint of sass. When they do grow up, I’m sure they will be much sought after as performers. These children are the opposite of revolting.

Craig Els (Miss Trunchbull) in Matilda The Musical. Photo credit: RSC

  Which is more than can be said for Miss Trunchbull. A fearsome, quite intimidating character, Miss Trunchbull is perhaps one of Dahl’s most iconic characters, who has been striking fear into the hearts of young readers (and older ones, for that matter), since the novel’s publication. Although an antagonist, the villain of the piece, one can’t help but fall in love with Craig Els’ portrayal. A truly terrifying character, Els’ performance perfectly reflects the very quintessence of Dahls’ infamous headmistress. Also outstanding were Sebastien Torkia and Rebecca Thornhill as Mr and Mrs Wormwood respectively. Thornhill sums up the couple perfectly during her rendition of ‘Loud’. Everything about these characters is loud – their speech, their dress, and their in-your-face mannerisms. Thornhill’s Mrs Wormwood obsesses over her looks, striving to enhance what she has got. Her appearance is her priority, and this shallow character acts as a human manifestation of vanity. Torkia’s Mr Wormwood has something of Sacha Baron Cohen (particularly in his role as Thenardier in the film version of Les Miserables) in him, a parody of the typical ‘geezer’ that schemes and cheats his way to wealth. Despite all depicting the ‘bad’ characters, the true maggots of the piece, their characters embodying certain vices that, try as they might, cannot prove successful foils against Matilda’s virtues, her goodness, the performances of Els, Torkia and Thornhill are extraordinarily endearing, and the audience could not help but lap up their humorous portrayals of these unforgettable characters, showering them with well-deserved praise during the curtain call.

The cast of Matilda The Musical. Photo credit: RSC

  As mentioned, all elements of the production come together to create a show that is truly great, and Rob Howells‘ sets, coupled with Hugh Vanstone‘s lighting, goes a long way. The regular location changes transport us between classroom, library, and Wormwood residence, almost unnoticeably. The set is enclosed by an outer frame, made up of colourful  building-block-style structures, some bearing letters that spell out words relevant to plot. The sturdy set allows for the cast to clamber up and down onto different levels with ease, which make for some truly thrilling moments, most notably when the children are climbing on the gates of the school, rebelliously leaping onto the classroom desks, and using the swings during the song, ‘When I Grow Up’. Colour also plays an important role – duller, bleaker colours are used in the oppressive classroom sets, a stark contrast to the fluorescence, the neon confusion, of the Wormwood residence. The lighting achieves a similar effect – darker in the classrooms, and in the office of Miss Trunchbull, her character one of darkness, opposite Matilda’s light, and the bold, primary colours that appear when the children unite and sing together, which often shines out, filling the auditorium. Light fills the darkness. Good conquers evil, no matter the shape and size it comes in.

  Although perhaps a push to find somebody as clever as Matilda, Tim Minchin isn’t far off. A genius lyricist, his songs are so catchy, so memorable, they act as a perfect complement to Dahl’s story, acting as a beautiful extension of the plot we are so familiar with, and stirring expressions of the characters’ innermost thoughts.

The cast of Matilda The Musical. Photo credit: RSC

  As if the production wasn’t incredible enough, there are several illusions, courtesy of Paul Kieve, that leave the audience, young and old, in a dazzling state of disbelief. From that iconic scene in which Miss Trunchbull swings a child around by her pigtails, to Bruce Bogtrotter’s devouring of the most enormous chocolate cake, to cups moving and chalk writing by itself, the show is sprinkled with a healthy lashing of mischief, mystery, and magic, delighting all who watch.

  Although a subtle decision, it’s certainly a nice touch to have adults playing some of the students. Whilst on the surface, they can literally be viewed as the older, larger school children, who initially relish in the chance to tease the younger children, the addition of these adults in uniforms perhaps suggests that so many of us, despite our age, remain young at heart, which is probably why so many can relate to this musical. Ageing is a natural process, and one that cannot, unfortunately, be avoided. However, despite our age, we all dream, we all plan for the future, immediate or otherwise. At times, then, perhaps we all show, and if we do not, we should, that childlike innocence – dreaming, believing anything is possible, and just having fun. No matter how old we get,  I’m sure most of us would still jump at the chance to ride around on a scooter, play on a swing, or just make a little bit of mischief. 

The cast of Matilda The Musical. Photo credit: RSC

  Although a fun and colourful musical, Matilda certainly has an important message at its heart – primarily, that size doesn’t matter (…easy). Despite her age, Matilda takes charge of her own future, of her destiny. Unlike ill-fated fictitious characters, such as Jack and Jill, or Romeo and Juliet, characters she refers to during her solo song ‘Naughty’, Matilda realises that she has the power to write her own story, and only she will influence how it will unfold. She takes matters into her own hands, however small, and doesn’t rely on outside help. Rather, she helps herself, and in turn, helps others along the way, supporting, encouraging, inspiring, and empowering. One can’t help but think of Shakespeare’s famous quote from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – “Though she be but little, she is fierce”. The audience themselves are encouraged by this – as we are watching, we make the decision that we too will not fall victim to the manipulation of our own futures by anybody else, understanding that the power to act, to change our story, lies only within ourselves. Like Matilda, the musical moves us to stand up for what is right, teaching us to not simply take things on the chin, not to accept what we shouldn’t have to, and not to settle. Instead, wherever, and whenever, possible, we should do what we can to put things right.

  This family-friendly production appeals to people of all ages, and rightly so. Loved by children and adults alike, its provides us with a wonderful, and all too timely, reminder, that we should embrace our inner child (and our naughty side, while we’re at it). A truly marvellous production, one of pure escapism, ‘Matilda The Musical’ proves that sometimes, there is no odour more pleasant than the sweet, sweet smell of rebellion.

The REVOLTING! cast of Matilda The Musical. Photo credit: RSC

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