The one complaint I can make about Matilda is that the songs are so darn catchy that I had to put up with weird looks on the tube home as I hummed along. Suffice to say that I should leave the singing of Tim Minchin’s witty and moving songs to the astonishingly talented young cast. In all other respects, this really is a cracking show. A feel-good evening of good triumphing over evil, yes, but it is not without bite.
Matilda herself (played by Cleo Demetriou at the matinee) does not shy away from the less pleasant facets of life – her own stories are full of misery and destruction, although both she and her characters eventually sing their way to a happy ending. Diminutive Demetriou brilliantly captures the child’s desire to be normal, and to protect her negligent and abusive family from the interferences of the outside world. Her awful parents (played with garish glee by Paul Kaye and Josie Walker) do not stint in their abuse of their bookworm daughter. It actually becomes quite difficult to watch as Kaye, in a hideously bright lime-green suit, looms over Demetriou and insults her savagely. I found these moments far more upsetting than the pantomimic, over-the-top violence, threats and cruelty which Bertie Carvell’s magnificent Miss Trunchbull metes out.
Dennis Kelly’s script, expertly guided by Matthew Warchus’ direction, captures the childish desire to see adults brought low – reflected through Matilda’s small revenges on the adults in her life, and in the entire audience’s desire to see Trunchbull’s monstrous reign brought to an end. The delight radiates of the young audience in waves, especially during the exuberant ‘Revolting Children’ towards the end. Minchin’s quick-fire lyrics occasionally get slightly lost in the mouths of the cast of children, but they are, on the whole, admirably clear.
As before, the performance necessarily truncates Dahl’s story, with virtually no time elapsing between Matilda’s discovery of her miraculous telekenesis and her mastery of this mysterious power. The long, lonely hours of practice which Dahl describes are lost as we hurtle towards the next song. In ‘Revolting Children’, Minchin captures the essence of Dahl, as he does in the sheer, anarchic joy of ‘Naughty’.
The conceit that Matilda tells a story which turns into Miss Honey’s childhood jars a little, too, but only because the rest of the story does not stray into the fantastical – Matilda as a character has enough going on in her head that we don’t necessarily need the add-ons. However, it frames the piece nicely, allows for some beautiful shadow puppetry from Little Angel Theatre, and gives us as much plot as possible in the much snappier 2-and-a-half hours (it was three in Stratford). All-in-all, this as close to perfect a show as the West End has seen in a while.
Matilda is playing at the Cambridge Theatre. For more information and tickets, see the official Matilda website here. Don’t forget that 10 £5 tickets are available at the box office from 10am.