The Royal Shakespeare Company has struck gold with this wildly entertaining musical makeover of Roald Dahl's Matilda. It perfectly fits the bill as the family Christmas show at Stratford, but it's bound to have a robust commercial life way beyond the festive season. Dennis Kelly's clever adaptation and the witty, intricate songs by Aussie comic Tim Minchin create a new, improved version of Dahl's story about the little bookish prodigy who has to contend with ghastly, neglectful parents and a bullying monster of a headmistress.
For example, the mother (Josie Walker) is now a tacky ballroom dancing fanatic who hymns her dumbed-down cultural values in the hectic, hilariously complacent rumba-number "Loud": "It doesn't really matter if you know nowt/As long as you can sell it with a bit of clout". And Matilda, as well as being a genius with telekinetic powers, here has a prophetic story-telling gift that is harnessed to haunting self-referential effect in a stealthily paced inset-drama about the tragic marriage of an acrobat and escapologist.
Matthew Warchus's wondrously well-drilled production finds just the right balance between gleeful grotesque humour and heart-warming poignancy. Paul Kaye (TV's Dennis Pennis) is sublimely spivvy as the boorish used-car-salesman father. Equipped with a hump and a bust like Beachy Head, the excellent Bertie Carvel comes across like a transgender Richard III in the role of the fearsome headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, the English Hammer Throwing Champion of 1969. This dread harridan is a sporty, demonic variant of the pantomime dame as she swings a girl by the pigtails into outer space or romps around sniffing sweat for "The Smell of Rebellion" during an energetic gym routine that ends with her shunted off supine on the vaulting horse in a gloriously droll parody of a brassy Broadway climax. The production establishes a surreal comic world where a schoolboy's incriminating burp may be so vast that his fellow pupils reel away in purple-hazed slow-motion.
Granted, you can usually spot the influences (Sondheim, Lloyd Webber et al) in Minchin's eclectic score but it never fails to captivate with its vitality as it ranges from raucous rocking to pensive sweetness. There are three teams of young performers, aged between eight and 11, who play the roles of the children on a rota basis. The team I saw were genuinely remarkable, executing Peter Darling's electric choreography with spontaneity and precision.
At the performance I attended, Matilda was played by Adrianna Bertola. This child has extraordinary stage presence and a lovely singing voice. She can generate a compellingly thoughtful stillness and so is a natural centre of gravity in these boisterous proceedings. Giving the piece an emotional depth beyond her years, her Matilda develops a delicately affecting rapport with Lauren Ward's sweet yet never glutinous Miss Honey. I was about to say that Adrianna should go to the top of the class, but then so should the RSC for giving us a Christmas show for all ages and seasons.
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