Arts

Matilda, A Musical – The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford

Julia Armfield starts the year the Roald Dahl way.

It’s a funny thing, New Year’s Day. Whether or not you happen to be nursing the standard Trivial-Pursuit-and-Hootenanny hangover or attempting to recover from the no less intense mess of aches and pains that result from a night kick-started by a policeman at Southwark station informing you, by means of enquiry into whether or not you’re going to the rave, that apparently you’re going to a rave (and believe me, it came as a shock), there is still something about the first day of the year which makes us hanker for something simultaneously familiar enough to sooth the headache, yet new and exciting enough to keep us hoping that this year, things might be different. To say that I found the perfect option, in my New Year’s Day trip up to Stratford to see the new Matilda musical, based on the book by Roald Dahl and with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, would be so grossly beyond all levels of understatement that I’m not even going acknowledge that I just wrote it down.

As I may have mentioned in previous articles, I’m a Roald Dahl sort of person. With this in mind, on first hearing that the RSC was planning to turn one of the most pivotal books of my childhood into an all-singing, all-dancing musical, my emotions, to say the least, were mixed. The fact that Tim Minchin, of “Inflatable You” fame, was billed as both composer and lyricist admittedly went some way to allaying my fears, and the fact that the Americanised movie adaptation of the book is already the best thing ever committed to film aside from Clueless certainly helped, but even so, I still had my doubts. Suffice it to say, I needn’t have worried. Matilda, A Musical is theatre adaptation at its very, very best. Telling the story of a feisty little girl with extraordinary brainpower and her fight against the seemingly endless injustices of a cartoon-like adult world, the musical retains all the well-loved chaos and creativity of the original story, yet with additions and embellishments which add dimension and richness without ever compromising the darkly delightful heart of the book. Dennis Kelly, as adaptor, has created a vision that is, at once, mean-spirited and miraculous. Matilda is surrounded by the pantomime barbarism of adults; detested at home by her telly-obsessed parents (played to ‘Gor-Blimey perfection by Josie Walker and Paul Kaye) and terrorised at school by a truly diabolical incarnation of the infamous Miss Trunchbull, who is played by Bertie Carvel in what will surely be one of the great comedy performances of the year.

The music is an ebullient masterpiece from start to finish, with an anarchic delight and cheeky technical complexity that could not be more Tim Minchin. The lyrics are of a level of comedic brilliance only to be expected from the man who once told us that “if you open your mind too much your brain will fall out”, although they are, at times, rather let down by a remarkably poor sound balance which should really have been spotted during technical rehearsals. “Miracle”, “Naughty” and “The Children are Revolting” are comedic show-stoppers of the highest order, whilst numbers like “Quiet” and “When I Grow Up” have all the unexpected poignancy needed for the heart of a musical otherwise so preoccupied with chaotic black comedy. Of course, the true heart of this story, perhaps most especially in Kelly’s version, is Matilda herself; a voracious reader and opponent of injustice who, in this incarnation, also becomes a prophetic storyteller who magically prefigures the plight of her one adult champion, Miss Honey. Josie Griffiths (one of three girls playing Matilda) is a fantastically natural and talented singer and performer, making a character who might otherwise have been gratingly precocious wonderfully sympathetic. She is counterbalanced by an exuberant child cast, a sweetly stoic Miss Honey (Lauren Ward) and a Trunchbull so wittily conceived and so skilfully portrayed that Carvel somehow manages to suggest, in the words of Michael Billington, “an unusually athletic Richard III” in a gym slip.

Matilda, A Musical, is a riotous affair; a special effects extravaganza in which children are swung around by their hair and lifted off the ground by their ears, all surrounded by a kaleidoscopic explosion of a set, designed around the letters of the alphabet. As family entertainment, it is an absolute joy, with all that is dark and disgusting about Roald Dahl there to keep children and adults alike entertained and to remind both that sometimes, everyone needs to be a little bit naughty. All in all, I think there’s a reason why critics are hailing this production as “the best British musical since Billy Elliot”. It’s because it is.

(And just by the by, I don’t mean to drop names when I’m already over my word limit, but given that I spotted two highly influential West End producers in the audience just in front of me, I think it might be safe to assume that anyone not lucky enough to get tickets this time around probably won’t have to wait too long for this production to roll on up to London. I’m just saying.)

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