Matilda the Musical – Review – Bradford Alhambra
By David Schuster, February 2019
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s captivating production of Matilda has commenced a five-week run at the Alhambra in Bradford, and it makes for a hugely enjoyable evening out. As with many of Roald Dahl’s stories, it’s a tale with a dark edge to it; Matilda is an unusually gifted girl and, in some respects, gifted in unusual ways. However, she is continually mocked for this by her stupid and self-absorbed family. Things take an even worse turn when she is sent to school and runs afoul of the headmistress, the draconian Miss Trunchbull. Despite all these tribulations she remains both honourable and optimistic, which wins her the friendship of her peers and downtrodden Miss Honey, her teacher.
The casting is a very unusual mix; the RSC made the brave decision to have the children’s parts played by young actors. As a result, there are roughly equal numbers of named adult and youth roles. Jo Hawes, the Children’s Manager, had her work cut out when asked to assemble no less than twenty six school-age actors able to sing, dance and, on occasion, perform acrobatics. They also looked outside the usual suspects for a writer, choosing gritty playwright Dennis Kelly for the stage adaptation, and comedian Tim Minchin for the music and lyrics.
“Right amount of sass and impishness”
In 1988, this was the first musical that Minchin had written, and many of the memorable songs have his mischievous sense of humour to them. After reluctantly and resentfully missing an amateur dance competition to give birth, Matilda’s mother lies on the hospital trolley bemoaning: “Oh, my undercarriage doesn’t feel quite normal. My skin looks just revolting in this foul fluorescent light. And this gown is nothing like the semi-formal, semi-Spanish gown, I should be wearing in the semi-finals tonight”. The opening lines to ‘Naughty’ are likewise ironic: “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. So, they say their subsequent fall was inevitable”.
The (extremely sensible) rules applying to child actors mean that the part of Matilda is shared by four girls. For our performance this was the tremendously talented Nicola Turner, who is already an extremely accomplished actress at such a young age. She brings just the right amount of sass and impishness to the role. This contrasts nicely with Miss Honey, whose circumstances are so similar, but who has been bullied into submission.
The ogre-like Miss Trunchbull is played by male actor Elliot Harper, and the scene where Honey, actress Carly Thoms, extolls the virtues of the schoolgirl to the Headmistress only to have her cruelly twist her words, allows them both to deliver an exemplary portrayal of deference and despotism. However, even Miss Trunchbull is shown to have her dreams, of Olympic hammer throwing, as she performs a hilarious ribbon dance.
“Laugh out loud one-liners”
Throughout the show, the cast perform some great dance routines, often with unexpected props, in and around a very clever library-like set, whose books and letters echo the main themes of the play. There are some laugh out loud one-liners in the script; “Dinners don’t microwave themselves you know” and the school motto, “Bambinatum est Magitum”, or “Children are Maggots.” The funniest scene though is the three-way dance routine, where Miss Honey encounters Matilda’s mother and her dance partner and she is literally thrown into the action.
You’ll leave the theatre smiling, and with your faith that good will triumph in the end restored. This is true family entertainment, my only caveat being that the bleak images of Crunchem Hall school might make it scary for the very young, especially those about to start education! Dahl’s story makes the point that time is the one thing none of us is master of: Make sure you don’t miss this opportunity to see Matilda.
images: Manuel Harlan