It becomes obvious within the opening bars of Matilda that this is no ordinary family show. The kids who make up a large proportion of the cast are as gifted a bunch of youngsters as I’ve ever been fortunate enough to see in a theatre: the choreography is flawless, the singing is astonishingly good (it’s tempting to add ‘for such young performers’, but that sounds like making allowances where none are needed), and there’s certainly no dip in the quality when the adults join them on stage. The set and costumes are creative, colourful (or occasionally dark and brooding, as the mood demands) and beautifully executed, and the puppetry is enchanting.
But to focus too much on the technical aspects of the production – excellent as they are – would be to miss the point. What really makes this show jaw-droppingly good – and make no mistake about it, that’s what it is – is the fabulous script and score, the vibrantly created cast of characters, and Roald Dahl’s story which is told through and by them.
Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics sparkle with wit and energy, demonstrating a touch of genius to rival that of the eponymous Matilda. Complemented by Dennis Kelly’s book, they make up a piece which is by turns riotously funny and gut-wrenchingly poignant (and against all apparent logic, sometimes both at once), all brought vividly to life by Matthew Warchus’ masterful direction.
Kerry Ingram – one of three girls taking on the title role – is an utter delight, striking a perfect balance between self assurance and vulnerability. Bertie Carvel is wonderfully malevolent (and surprisingly athletic) as the unpleasant headmistress Miss Trunchbull, while Josie Walker and Paul Kaye both amuse and appal as Matilda’s horrendous parents. Lauren Ward gives a touching performance as warm-hearted form teacher Miss Honey, and Melanie La Barry is charmingly endearing as librarian Mrs Phelps. The supporting cast are too many to name individually, but all are excellent, each adding their own particular flavour to a magnificent whole.
With strong appeal for younger audience members, this is a perfect festive family show, but it would be a mistake to regard it as something just for the kids: I defy the hardest-bitten cynic to watch it and not come away grinning – and probably having wiped away the odd surreptitious tear. It will be a travesty if the production doesn’t ultimately transfer to an extended London run.
The only thing that distracted me from the stage was the realisation halfway through the interval entertainment (an incentive not to linger too long over your drinks!) that sitting right in front of me was Tim Minchin himself. It was tempting to ask if I could kiss the hem of his garment out of sheer gratitude, though I managed to restrain myself. But only just.