Roald Dahl is one of the most loved authors for childhood in the country, and his books have brought joy to the life of children and adults alike. I approached this award-winning production of the musical adapted from his Matilda with a certain trepidation, as the book is a personal favourite of mine and the reputation of the musical by now precedes it. I was not disappointed: Matilda is a thoroughly enjoyable experience that runs so smoothly that it feels far shorter than its actual duration, amusing, touching, tender, genuinely funny, and capturing for the most part the spirit of the book it is adapted from. As the story of Matilda is more than ever relevant today – the importance of literature and education, solidarity and standing up to bullies, and perhaps more than anything else the need for good teachers, are all topics of huge interest in our contemporary society – it was a particular pleasure to see the audience populated by a good number of families with children of a wide age range, and to see the children follow the show with deep engagement and trepidation. There is a need, perhaps even a longing, in contemporary theatre, for more productions that might represent a good introduction to the stage for the younger members of the audience, that might capture their interest and introduce them to an art form that is too often at risk of being perceived as elitist. Matilda is without doubt particularly successful under this respect.
RSC productions are known for their attention to detail and this is no exception. Particular consideration has clearly been given to choreographing, as everything on stage moves in tune like clockwork, no small feat considering that a good part of the narration relies on child actors. The children’s cast, in fact, is particularly remarkable in the believable, joyful performances it delivers. Scarlett Cecil took on the role of Matilda with a stage presence that went from the subtly cheeky to the genuinely touching, making her relatable and endearing. Among the adult cast, it is worth mentioning Sebastien Torkia and Rebecca Thornhill as the beautifully over-the-top Mr and Mrs Wormwood – truly looking like an illustration from a Roald Dahl book might have come to life – and most of all Craige Els, whose performance as Miss Trunchbull was both amused and amusing and overall delightful. Generally, the cast showed great stage chemistry that made the comedic timing almost perfect and the more serious moments convincingly touching.
While inventive, the staging is at risk sometimes of feeling overcrowded, in some scenes taking away the focus from the action. This is not a major flaw, but the parts in which the set elements encroach less on the scene stand out the most, and the whole work might have benefited from a simpler design. The costumes are, again, reminiscent of something that might have come out of a book illustration, which is very effective given the stylised nature of many of the characters. There are some good, inventive ideas in the direction: one sequence making good use of shadow puppets to tell the ending of a story otherwise impossible to portray on stage is particularly poetic and well-delivered.
While the audience will probably not be left with any distinctive earworm they’ll keep humming for days after the end of the show, Tim Minchin’s music has a clear sound and personality that captures the energetic mood and the biting humour of the book and its characters, contributing to the mood of each scene rather than trying to find an easy tune. This is also to the advantage of the production, which as a whole, while accessible to children, retains all the complexity of its story and does not shy away from its darker and less palatable implications. Good literature for children should aim to tackle complex and sometimes difficult themes, and a story like that of Matilda, admonishing adults to not underestimate children’s intelligence, but value it and foster its development, in a sense demands not to be watered down or simplified. This, then, is perhaps the production’s greatest achievement: that it aims, and manages, to create a work truly aimed at all ages, trusting the children in its audience to be capable of tackling even its most difficult or emotional sections – something that is nowadays, unfortunately, all too rare.
Wales Millennium Centre until January 12