For a first crush, Roald Dahl’s Matilda is hard to beat. A super sweet sweetheart with a super brain to match, her cleverness and her compassion combined with her naughty streak make Matilda the ultimate pin-up for every cowboy and Indian. She was certainly my son’s first on-screen love and the film version with Mara Wilson is more than well-worn in our house. Yet her brilliance could not have existed had Roald Dahl not breathed life into her and so it is always with some doubt that we expose ourselves to remakes of timeless classics. But for anyone going to watch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version of this miraculous story, that doubt would be misplaced.
Having bought our tickets, we accidentally found ourselves going on opening night as the show had been postponed for a week, so we were not sure what to expect – pitch perfect performances or the start of something in need of serious tweaking. What we found, was breath-taking. Everything about this production is flawless.
The set itself was ingeniously put together and worked like a liquid landscape, with just the right amount of change and props so that every part of the story came to life. The lighting too was well thought out and used sometimes to spine-chilling effect. The music was also a triumph; the songs were beautifully written and varied nicely in style to fit in with each scene.The Smell of Rebellion and Revolting Children contain songs which will stick to the tapping soles of your feet and slowly melt into your mind. If you don’t wake up the following morning with a dewy glow about you, I will put you in Chokey myself. And that is the kind of emotion this performance will make you feel. But it’s not just the set and the songs that create that kind of excitement; there is an altogether much more powerful magic that sets this production on fire: the actors.
There are lots of child actors in this production – as you might imagine, and each one is a miracle. For a full-bodied show which runs to around two hours, the stamina these little people display is inspiring. Their performances are fantastic, too; synchronised and smiley, every single one brings a special warmth to the show. Matilda herself was convincing and elegant as the young heroine quietly making her way through childhood one book at a time (not to mention the odd mischievous deed). A very sweet Eric adds more than a touch of ‘cute’, whilst Nigel added a delightful dollop of ‘dude’ to the mini ensemble and Lavender rounds off the kids with her quirky devotion to Matilda and her well-timed comedic come-backs. And the adults too, played their part. Very, very well.
Miss Honey was endearing and deliciously wistful as she struggled to find herself and to save Matilda from her disinterested parents. The Wormwoods were suitably brash and unwelcoming but likeable too and the ever lovely Mrs Phelps was ever-lovely as the caring and fascinated librarian who nurtures Matilda’s love of learning.
Yet the most powerful performance, the most brilliant re-creation of the evening, must go to Bertie Carvel – the gentleman,yes, gentleman, who took the role of Miss Trunchbull. The sheer genius of this performance is hard to put into words, but I’m going to try. His portrayal of the evil headmistress, riddled with angst and a deep fear of what lies beyond the safe world of rules and regulations, is nuanced and sophisticated. His posture as the conflicted Miss Trunchbull alone is masterful, from her twisted hands to that sunken head which twitches smoothly with gelid disgust as she makes her way through the scores of children she comes across, picking them off one by one to punish them at every opportunity. That voice too, soft and yet menacing will have you on the edge of your seat and yet perhaps the most intensely satisfying aspect of Mr Carvel’s impersonation is his ability to convey the fearful with the downright hilarious. Credit should also go to the fantastic costume designers for the enhancement of the characters’ personalities and MissTrunchbull’s outfits really do add to the menace and the absurdity that is the Headmistress of Crunchem Hall, but it is Mr Carvel who takes it home, with his wry and astute recreation of Dahl’s monster.
The director too, stays true to Roald Dahl’s narrative, remaining as loyal as is humanly possible within the restrictions that a theatrical production naturally imposes and the dance routines too, which were out of this world, seemed faithful in their own way. It was obvious that the children in the production were well looked after too; at one point during the second half a prop mal-functioned and technicians arrived on stage to move the children away from harm (it was only a very small malfunction). They were reassured and then redirected to perform the end of the scene without the props. Nobody minded that a minor glitch (pardon the pun) had taken place. We were all too entranced by the perfection of the play and its players.
Going to the theatre today is not cheap; I was very lucky tobe able to go with my son but if you can make it to the Cambridge Theatre to see Matilda, it may just be the best thing you did this half term or any half term in the history of half terms; I gave it a standing ovation last night – along with every other member of the audience.
Miss Trunchbull is waiting for you – it’s phys ed or bust.