Review – Matilda the Musical – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Cambridge Theatre

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Last winter, the raves in the Twittersphere were unanimous: the Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda was a real winner. “That’s great,” I thought, “it’s always good for a new musical to be birthed and loved.” Stratford isn’t normally an affordable venue for me to visit (only really being suited to weekend matinees as the distance otherwise requires a hotel), but it hardly mattered because by the time I had heard about it, it was already sold out.

It was thus a great pleasure when I heard that Matilda was coming to London. I am naturally suspicious of musicals with lots of children in them, but since it was based on a story by Roald Dahl, I figured the sugar level was bound to be low while the darkness would be high. I had some luck with a preview ticket offer – figuring it had already had a solid run in Stratford, in my mind the early London shows would still be high quality. As it turned out, I wound up attending on press night, and with a £40 balcony ticket (at my utter top range unless it’s a birthday present) I was feeling quite suspicious about getting value on the money despite the build up.

Regular readers will know that I like to go to shows without having plot details revealed to me in advance, but be ready to be shocked: unlike most “normal” people, I have never read Matilda. So I had no idea what it was about, other than it was about a little girl and a mean teacher. My ignorance is due, I think, to growing up in America: while I had James and the Giant Peach read to me, saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, I wasn’t aware there were more Roald Dahl books out there. (Mind, this was about 1976 so there were quite a few less Dahl books at the time.) I had NO IDEA what was going to happen, especially since, with what I knew of Dahl, I igured a traditional happy ending was NOT necessarily in the cards. In fact, in the P.E. scene, when the stage suddenly went all red, I had a bit of a freak out thinking OH MY GOD IT’S GOING TO GO ALL CARRIE ON US and was expecting blood to be splashed everywhere (a thought NOT helped by my friend’s comment about Matilda’s “powers” a few minutes before). COMICALLY KILLER LITTLE GIRL the headlines read selling the show to people who would “get” it, while I sat in a corner, wrapped in a blanket, trying to recover from the terror. Thankfully, this did NOT happen. Rewind to earlier in the evening …

Tickets torn, I walked into a newly bejewelled Cambridge Theater, clutching a bag of chocolates and a rubber newt, and sat down to take in the miracle of the exposed set – all giant letters on wooden blocks, some spelling words, many lit with black lights. It was hard to imagine such a transformation since Chicago left, but it had become quite the little jewelbox. (And yes, there were acres of children in the audience, but, as I expected, they were generally well behaved, even though the show’s running time of 2:45 might have been a bit much for the under 10 set.) It was a good start, really.

Then a table began creeping forward under finger power, the orchestra kicked off, and BANG we were having a show! The kids started out bratty as hell (doing a little number about how each of them was special), a good contrast for introducing Matilda (Cleo Demetriou the night I went), a charming little girl with the trashiest, most ignorant parents (with the most deliciously hideous wardrobe) ever, who are disappointed that she wastes her time doing things like “reading” and “telling stories” and “not being a boy.” Thankfully, as a Dahl heroine, Matilda’s not obliged to be passive and pathetic, but instead shows spunk and rebelliousness. This does NOT go over well at school, where blind obedience is the rule per Headmistress (= principal for fellow Americans) Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel, terrifying and hysterical in a “if only Panto dames were always this awesome” style).

Things I didn’t expect of this story narrative-wise: Matilda is liked by the other kids despite being smart; there is a teacher who positively treasures her (Miss Honey, Lauren Ward); and there is a major subplot involving Matilda telling a story to her librarian friend, Mrs. Phelps (Melanie La Barrie). Matilda’s act of imagination is illustrated ingeniously for the stage, with devices ranging from puppets to amazingly costumed actors to an animated movie that reminded me of the Cray brothers. The creative team could have done so much less but instead they took the opportunity to create real theatrical magic – thanks for that, guys.

While I was terrified that the show was going to be cutesy, sappy, and either candied up or dulled down for the expected (and arrived) young audience, in fact, there was none of that: the song lyrics were thoughtful, the movement and dance was original (and hysterical at time); there was appropriate sexuality for the adults (well, Rudolpho, anyway); the humor was all over the place. Best of all, the darkness I expect and love from Dahl appeared in now way to have been sanitized out. People, even adults and parents, are cruel and hurtful and mean; they don’t have to do it because they’re waiting for something magical to happen that takes their problem away but just because they enjoy power and control; children (and adults) suffer from their inability to have the same power; the world is, really, not concerned with fairness.

Matilda, if it has a lesson, is that you don’t need to take life’s unfairness sitting down; that, even though standing against something that is blatantly not right does not mean you can change the outcome, it will, if nothing else, ensure that you did better than go through life as a victim. It’s hard not to enjoy this show for all of its energy, great design work, and high-caliber acting; but ultimately, the reason to see it again (which I will) is because it makes you feel good, even in a world that has so many wrongs in it. Yeah, my tickets were out of budget for me; but for once, I felt like I had really got my money’s worth. I may not have come out singing the songs (in fact I frequently could not hear the lyrics), but I did feel I’d seen a really great show.

(This review is for the press performance that took place on Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011. It is booking through September 9, 2012. My advice if you want any kind of discount is to go with a large group. Be advised this show does a Sunday matinee but is dark on Monday.)

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One Response to “Review – Matilda the Musical – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Cambridge Theatre”

  1. xobeksxo Says:

    I agree that the lyrics were thoughtful, although like you I often couldn’t hear them – but do you not think the whole thing was very childish? The kids were incredibly vivacious and impeccably well-rehearsed, of course, it just didn’t have any wow-factor moments for me.

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