Matilda

Cambridge Theatre, 21 December 2012 – booking until Oct 2012

There is a long and often inglorious history of converting  much-loved books into musical theatre. The temptation for doing so is obvious; flying in the face of overwhelming critical disdain, Les Miserables has provided a template for

financial success. It has a mantelpiece of audience-choice awards, a global army of devoted fans and by January 2010 it was celebrating notching up 10,000 performances in the West End. In short the tills have not stopped ringing since the original Cameron Mackintosh-Trevor Nunn production in 1985.

A salient and oft-overlooked fact by those who sneer at Les Mis is that this success has seen the RSC (producers of Matilda) through the brutal conditions suffered in the 1980’s under a prime minister who held Andrew Lloyd Webber as a shining example of artistic achievement. No doubt Jean Valjean would not have countenanced betraying his principles in such a manner but clearly the financially imperatives of publically subsidised theatre led to Trevor Nunn’s rather more pragmatic vision.

With Les Miserables finally beginning to flag, transferring to the noticeably smaller Queens Theatre and with the famous Barricade seemingly less than impressive in its new surrounds, the RSC have sought to launch a new cash cow in the form of a major new musical adapted from a well-known book. Clearly it was though that the National’s approach of writing a verbatim musical, ‘London Road’, about the serial killing of five prostitutes in Ipswich was not the way to long-term commercial success.

However the road to the West End is paved with the carcasses of plots from their literary womb untimely ripped. Topping this sad and unfestive tree must be Gone With The Wind, critically reviled and starring a woefully miscast Darius (remember him?), but there is also Carrie The Musical, a concept so clearly problematic that the mind boggles at the commissioning process. For most of 2012 we have been entertained by the sorry stories emanating across the Atlantic surrounding the sheer ineptitude of Spiderman: The Musical; a show that could only have come from trouble-shooting consultants who identified a previously unidentified cross over between comic book fans and musical theatre goers.

The RSC must have approached Roald Dahl’s much-loved children’s book with some trepidation. He is an author who, like Enid Blyton, never seems to go out of fashion despite offering a nostalgic view of England that those reading the books will find hard to reconcile with a world of X-Boxes and Club Penguin. With a central premise built on libraries, it even smacks of radicalism that seems very at odds with Dahl’s natural conservatism.

It is entirely understandable why middle-class parents adore it. This is a world without laptops and the internet, where a child can find solace in libraries and Matilda’s father can be an East End rockabilly spiv, but which at the same time can feel pressingly relevant to the present. This gift is a large part Dahl’s as the author, but a lot of credit must go to Dennis Kelly for the adaptation and Tim Minchin for the lyrics. Between them they have captured the essence of Dahl’s spirit perfectly for the stage and in doing so they have also humanised the story. It is always necessary to take certain liberties in order to compact a novel for the stage and in this case a decision has been made to focus on Matilda’s relationships rather than the development of her special powers.

The production is backed by very strong performances; Bertie Carvel, as Miss Trunchbull, gained a deserved Evening Standard nomination and gives the role a wonderfully surreal pantomime dame quality that ensures there is a comic undertone to much of her terrifying qualities, whilst Paul Kaye as Matilda’s father, heavily coiffured and resplendent in checkered suit, zips around the stage reminiscent of an Acme character let loose from the world of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The real stars of the show are the children, which is entirely as it should be and a mark of confidence in the production. A less bold director would have cast older children or hidden them behind the performances of the adult cast but Matthew Warchus has kept faith in the ability of his charges and the results are evident for all to see. A certain glazed expression is often evident on the faces of child actors that hints at a dead-behind-the-eyes quality built across years of stage school, Saturday morning tap classes and pushy parents. However the acting was tight and the song and dance routines full of a joyous energy that masked how tightly-knit they were performed; most importantly they also looked like they were enjoying themselves. Special mention has to go to Matilda; a commanding central performance that is remarkable for its self-possession and stage presence, managing to bottle Matilda’s imagination and hinting at the vulnerability that provides the basis for the development of her powers.

With songs packed with the wit and verve that evoke memories of Sondheim, a visually stunning set that allows the action to flow energetically across scenes and innovative stage effects that bring to life the more surreal aspects of Dahl – this is a production that is likely to run in the West End for a while to come and, just as pleasingly, ensures that the RSC can keep the coffers full during the years of austerity ahead.

And for a sneak preview…

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