With a large amount of the RSC's cash still coming from Les Miserables, they must always be on the lookout for their next big musical hit, and this musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda has to be their best bet for a follow-up in some time. Originally commissioned for last year's Stratford Upon Avon Christmas show, the stage version from Dennis Kelly (book) and Tim Minchin (music & lyrics) now comes to the West End and brings with it a lot of anarchic charm. I went to the show with my sister, who on the way home was already saying she'd happily see it again.
Four young actresses alternate the title role of the little girl who gets no love at home because she prefers reading books to watching TV, and who takes revenge on her stupid parents (Paul Kaye and Josie Walker) and violent headmistress. Rob Howell's set is a joyful explosion of children's letter-blocks that sets you right up for what follows; the tiles nicely conceal a number of imaginative set changes as well. Kelly has stuck fairly closely to the original story with just a few deviations, so the whole thing is a celebration of naughtiness, and not just from the children. It's a running joke among my Twitter friends that nobody knows what Bertie Carvel actually looks like, so much does he transform himself with every role, let alone here where he's also in drag (and looking as close to the original Quentin Blake illustration as anything in the show.) As the neckless, psychotic headmistress Miss Trunchbull he steals the show and tonight's audience were eating out of the palm of his hand as Trunchbull comes up with increasingly deranged (and cleverly realised on stage) punishments for the children. Meanwhile Lauren Ward brings some life to Miss Honey, I character I find insipid on the page, and Melanie La Barrie gets enjoyably over-invested in Matilda's storytelling as librarian Mrs Phelps.
The children are also all very good, and though it's not unusual to be impressed by child actors' perfomances, on top of the singing I don't think I've seen a group of kids be given this amount of complex choreography (by Peter Darling) before, which they execute perfectly. Though the show's a solid recommendation from me, I will say that Minchin's songs are a lot stronger on the lyrics than on the music, which is fine but hasn't got many particularly catchy numbers. "When I Grow Up," which bordered on making me a bit tearful, is probably the best song in the show; "School Song" is the most lyrically clever, running through words beginning with every letter of the alphabet (and one of the more memorably staged setpieces) while containing enough deliberate misspelling and "cheating" to get through all the letters, to fit right into Dahl's anarchic spirit. Matthew Warchus' production deserves to be a big hit, and manages to get the tricky balance right in genuinely providing something for all ages, but I didn't find myself in any hurry to buy the soundtrack afterwards.
Matilda by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin, based on the book by Roald Dahl, is booking until the 9th of September 2012 at the Cambridge Theatre.