Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 9 December, 2010
Roald Dahl's children's book rightly extols the joy and value of knowledge for its own sake. It is mordantly ironic that the RSC's musical adaptation of it should open on the afternoon that MPs voted for university funding changes which will entirely instrumentalise higher education provision. There is even a moment in the show which can be interpreted as obliquely satirising the burden of student loans. And, with Matilda's neglectful father and mother respectively glued to the TV and fixated upon ballroom dancing glory, the brainless modern pop-culture ideal of media-talent success is not far from adapter Dennis Kelly's sights either.
This makes the show sound like a moralising fable; Dahl's stories are somewhat didactic, true, but the lesson is always firmly embedded in enjoyment and excitement. The same is true of Kelly's script and Matthew Warchus's production; indeed, it overflows the bounds of the show proper, with Paul Kaye as Matilda's father delivering an interval number about the joys of telly. It pains me just a little to say how good Tim Minchin's songs are: I have never warmed to him as a comedy singer-songwriter, but he really delivers here. Most of the numbers are packed with word-play (in the opening minutes alone we hear "miracle" rhymed with "umbilical", and Matilda's mother complains in the obstetric ward about being "dressed in hospital cotton/ With a smarty front bottom"), but the sentimental vein of the story is also expertly catered for; the beautiful Act Two opener "When I Grow Up" will surely be a crossover hit for some saucer-eyed moppet.
The youngsters in the cast are one part winsome to two parts impish: at the performance I saw, Kerry Ingram's petite Matilda gradually found her strength, James Beesley revelled in the world's biggest burp and Misty May Tindall began what may be a long career in scene-stealing. Sometimes they even managed to divert attention from Bertie Carvel, who seems to be specialising in urbane grotesques and here appears in fearsome yet hilarious drag as tyrannical headmistress and hammer-throwing champion Miss Trunchbull. When the Russian mafia turn up as a final threat, Kelly even squeezes in a linguistic gag on the "da" of "Matilda". You see, knowledge is both useful and wonderful in itself, not to say fun. Ministers, please note.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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