Matilda the Musical, with a book by Dennis Kelly and a score by Australian Tim Minchin, is nothing short of a miracle. It’s a rare musical of the kind that only comes around once every decade or two — where the head and the heart work together as one to create something glorious but completely unassuming.
Adapted from Roald Dahl’s beloved 1988 novel about a super-brainy young girl who stands up for what’s right, the musical has picked up fans of all ages, rave reviews, and Olivier and Tony Awards since it premiered in 2010.
And although Minchin is just one part of the equation in this Royal Shakespeare Company-produced show, the musical’s Australian premiere feels a little like a homecoming. That it lives up to the hype it’s been given in the local media is remarkable.
Matilda feels very much like Minchin’s show, even though the genius and naughtiness of Dahl is ever-present, expertly translated to stage by Kelly and Matthew Warchus’ direction. The songs are all immediately accessible, and there are plenty of earworms (you’ll probably be happily humming When I Grow Up for days afterwards). But they’re all in service of the plot and characters, starting with the opening number Miracle, which borrows heavily from Dahl’s first chapter and hilariously skewers parents who believe their brat is god’s gift.
Of course, the Wormwoods (Marika Aubrey and Daniel Frederiksen) think their extraordinarily gifted daughter Matilda is nothing but an ignorant little squirt from the moment she’s born. But we first meet Matilda as a five-year-old starting school at Crunchem Hall. The school is overseen by the terrifying Miss Trunchbull (James Millar), who shares the Wormwoods’ opinion of the young girl.
Only Miss Honey (Elise McCann) and the librarian Mrs Phelps (Cle Morgan) recognise and encourage Matilda’s genius. On the other hand, the Wormwoods and Miss Trunchbull are both deeply suspicious of her passion for books and language, which are at the core of Matilda’s rebellious journey.
It’s this love of words which permeates the entire production; from Rob Howell’s set, which is covered in books and an explosion of tiles bearing letters and symbols (some which cheekily spell out words like “burp”), to School Song, which ingeniously inserts the entire alphabet — A to Z — into the lyrics of a song.
Warchus’ endlessly inventive, detailed production has been imported to Australia almost exactly as it appeared on the West End, and it fits the local cast like a glove.
Bella Thomas played the title role (which she shares with three other young actors) on opening night and was the central force which held the entire production together. She has a gorgeous, crystal-clear singing voice and tackles Minchin’s rapid-fire lyrics with plenty of flair. Her performance of Quiet is a simple but certain showstopper thanks to her gentle determination amidst the organised chaos. In fact, there’s a directness to her entire performance which is perfectly in step with the directness of Minchin’s lyrics. This is a Matilda who says what she’s thinking and wholeheartedly means every word she’s saying.
Matilda’s ultimate nemesis — Miss Trunchbull — is brought to vivid life by James Millar in ample-bosomed drag. Millar is imposing and delivers first-rate physical comedy, and a layered characterisation with moments of blind fury offset by an unusual and dangerous sweetness.
Thankfully the producers didn’t go down the track of casting a “star” in the role (as another notable Australian producer suggested he would have were he casting the show). Having somebody well-known in the role could easily throw off the balance of the piece and turn it into pantomime, focused on the monstrous Trunchbull stalking Matilda, rather than the young girl’s journey. There are surprising subtleties in Millar’s take on the role, and it’s difficult to imagine there are many actors around who could play this part so perfectly.
Elise McCann completely inhabits the role of the kind school teacher Miss Honey — she simply radiates lightness from the moment she steps onstage. She’s physically and emotionally dwarfed by Miss Trunchbull and plenty of other adults, but there’s a tiny flame of courage which flickers within her small frame. Her solo My House is exquisitely sung and one of a few moments where Minchin tugs shamelessly at the audience’s heartstrings.
Marika Aubrey and Daniel Frederiksen also impress as Matilda’s grotesque parents. These characters are really not much more than caricature, but they’re sharply and affectionately drawn. Frederikson’s Mr Wormwood is every bit the ratty, scheming man Dahl wrote about, while Aubrey’s number Loud is an early showstopper.
But the entire ensemble is integral to bringing Matilda’s world to life in all their various guises, and the full cast numbers are a riot. Revolting Children all but lifts the audience up out of their chairs thanks to Peter Darling’s wild choreography, which seems to grow from the inside out for every character on stage finally breaking free. (Ethan Puse gets a thrilling solo in the number, leading the class in song as Bruce Bogtrotter).
And When I Grow Up, complete with kids and grown-ups playing on oversized swings over the front few rows of the audience, does something which seems impossible — it simultaneously speaks to adults and children in different ways. It’s joyous, cheeky and playful but has a bittersweet resonance for many adults. Have we grown up into the people we wanted to be? Did we take the innocence of childhood for granted?
If you were feeling particularly picky, you could point out a few awkward moments in the book: things wrap up a little too quickly in the second act, and the subplot about an escapologist and his wife, although bringing new and unexpected levels of depth to the character of Miss Honey, might be a little confusing for younger audiences and those not familiar with the source material.
But it’s been a long time since Sydney had a musical of this scale which so thoroughly deserves an audience. There’s been little on offer in recent years besides underwhelming revivals of audience favourites. Thank god for Matilda — it’s new, it does everything you could wish for in a blockbuster, and it appeals to children and adults in equal measure. It’s enough to restore your faith in commercial musical theatre.
Photos by James Morgan