Going into Matilda the Musical, with its cult following, five-star reviews and array of awards, I was prepared to be impressed. I was not, however, prepared for to leave the theatre and immediately tell everyone I know over any medium available to me that they absolutely needed to see Matilda, and proceed to binge-listen to the soundtrack for upwards of twenty four hours.
Matilda feels like a finely-tuned piece of clockwork, and a lot of this is down to its absolutely immaculate choreography, dreamed up by Fabian Aloise, Peter Darling, Ellen Kane and Jeroen Luiten. Not just limited to the musical numbers, but aesthetically carrying through into the whole production, it not only dazzles, but actually reimagines what musical theatre could look like. Zipping between a sort of gorgeous understatedness and all-out technical brilliance, nothing feels gratuitous and no movement is thrown away: it is dynamic, sharp and performed with, quite frankly, ridiculous precision.
Arguably, the highlight of Matilda is its absolutely staggering young cast. Child performers have a (perhaps not unfounded) reputation for over-enunciation, poor acting and only ever being put on stage for ‘aww factor’. The child cast in Matilda absolutely blow those stereotypes out of the water. Whether it’s their infectious energy, their tightly-drilled and genuinely believable acting, or the fact that they spend two hours pulling off choreography which would be a technical challenge to even the most seasoned performer, my hat goes off to them. My hat also goes off to the directing team (Phil Bartlett, Nik Ashton and Matthew Warchus) for managing to not only facilitate these incredible performances, but to do so without ever pushing them into feeling soulless or overcooked. Matilda’s young performers strike a gorgeous balance between slickness and that infectious sort of childlike joy, and absolutely make the production what it is.
The adults are quite good too. With universally immaculate comic timing which errs on just the right side of pantomime, they are committed, energetic and play off each other with verve and brilliance, absolutely making us believe that they are an eight year-old, or an escapologist, or a nightmarish PE teacher. A personal highlight was Matilda’s infamous ‘School Song’, where two of the adult actors performed acrobatic feats on a metal scaff grid, with lettered blocks being lodged in place at just the right moments to give them their next footholds. Despite all this, the adults are in all honesty upstaged by their younger counterparts: which is absolutely no mark on their abilities, and a real testament to the creative team in allowing the entire cast to shine.
The book itself, written by Dennis Kelly (of DNA fame), is heartwarming without ever becoming sappy. Full of dry one-liners (“dinners don’t just microwave themselves”) and madcap comic exchanges (“MRS WORMWOOD: Russians are nocturnal. I saw it on a programme last night. MATILDA: That was badgers. It was a programme about badgers.”), it chimes perfectly with Tim Minchin’s witty and oh-so-catchy score. Indeed, the upbeat tone and overarching comedy makes Matilda’s more earnest moments just that bit more hard-hitting. Gorgeously woven into Roald Dahl’s iconic children's story is a metanarrative about storytelling which not only made my inner dramaturg punch the air, but lifted the narrative from its arguably slightly one-dimensional roots into something which felt absolutely monumental. Matilda is as much about Matilda Wormwood as it is about stories, wonder and that first-day-of-school feeling.
Last but by no means least, Matilda is visually and technically stunning, throwing us into a technicolour world of strobes, reveals and magically moving tables. From its alphabet-block set (Ben Davies and Rob Howell) to its blinder-heavy lighting (Chris Hirst and Hugh Vanstone), Matilda is one of those rare pieces of theatre where the technical elements feel like an absolutely intrinsic part of the machine, and not just a stylistic complement. Matilda is also one of only a handful of productions to have a credit listed for ‘Illusion’ (Paul Kieve): ears are stretched, children are swung by pigtails and chalk flies in an absolute spectacle of pure theatrical magic, and yet Matilda never feels gimmicky or over-reliant on technical shock factor.
All in all, Matilda is an unbelievably slick production: rife with tight choreography, gorgeous harmonies and dazzling SFX, all pulled off with an infectious warmth. The cast is without a weak link, the score is gorgeous and the narrative is genuinely magical: perfectly capturing that feeling of being seven years old, entering into a grown-up world which feels enormous and scary and exciting all at once. Matilda not only lives up to the hype, but outdoes it. It is an absolute must-see.
(or six, only half joking)