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Review: Matilda (Leicester Curve and UK tour)

The West End musical hits the open road with a new UK tour

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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It took about 24 hours for Leicester theatregoers to snap up all of the available tickets for the first dates of the Les Misérables UK tour which opens in the city next autumn. Last night Curve limbered up for that juggernaut of a show by welcoming yet another much-loved hit West End musical.

Compared to the longevity of Les Mis, Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly's reimagining of Matilda is a mere seven or so years old but is firmly established as a classic British musical in its own right, and upon witnessing a thunderous reception for this knockout touring cast of grown-ups and children, it's easy to see why.

Roald Dahl reportedly wrestled with his story about a girl blessed with extraordinary talents, and while the musical itself was hardly a rush job (Minchin, Kelly and director Matthew Warchus spent years developing the project for the RSC), the wait was oh-so-worth-it. Already seen in 60 cities worldwide, Matilda has played to eight million people since it opened as a Christmas show in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Matilda (Nicola Turner) has the misfortune of being saddled with a set of loser parents, played to perfection by Rebecca Thornhill and Sebastien Torkia. Thornhill's Mrs Wormwood craves more time with her dance partner Rudolpho (Matt Gillett) and less time burdened by the demands of family life. Those "dinners don't microwave themselves," she reminds Mr Wormwood. But her husband barely notices. When he's not trying to con innocent motorists into buying rigged cars from him, he's scratching his stupid head, puzzled how he and the missus have produced a daughter (whom he insists on referring to as a boy) with such dazzling gifts for words and numbers.

School might be the answer – and initially, it is. Fans of the 1996 Hollywood film of the same name will remember how Matilda blows the mind of her teacher who notices the five year-old's incredible capacity for solving complex mathematics.

In Carly Thoms's beautiful interpretation of teacher Miss Honey we see the moment, too, but there is an especially powerful sense of moral responsibility; all differences need addressing, including Matilda's super-powers. Miss Honey's attempts to cultivate Matilda's mind – the child has already read Dickens and Dostoevsky – are thwarted by the fearsome yet fearful headmistress Miss Trunchbull.

Craige Els reprises the role he played to acclaim for three years in the West End. He is sensational as the battleaxe head nasty enough to trip up a poor kid while leading a gym class in a gloriously theatrical set piece. One bit of business, which I won't spoil, particularly hits the spot.

In ever-fetching beige – a great contrast to the vivid orange, purple and green in the Wormwood home scenes (delicious design from Rob Howell) – Trunchbull struts across the space: menacing, suspicious. Imagine the lovechild of Richard III and Peggy Mount, raised by Felonius Gru. Grotesque, cartoon-like, yes – but Els plays it truthfully, never seeking cheap laughs, and the rewards are greater for it.

At this level of showbusiness, the actress cast as Matilda requires a demanding checklist of skills. Auditions were held in London, Birmingham and Manchester to find the four performers required to navigate the role for the rest of the year, and in Turner they have found a little star. She sings, smiles and bounces her way into our hearts with not an ounce of sugar or schmaltz.

Minchin's score – in turn, punchy and addictive (Matilda's call-to-arms in "Naughty" springs to mind) to the tenderness of "When I Grow Up" and "My House" – is quietly brilliant, only fully hitting you late on, like a heavy book dropped on your head. Kelly's script is rock solid on story and boosted by a joke a minute, while Peter Darling's choreography superbly captures the energy of youth.

Matilda channels hope and celebrates difference. Powerful, funny and beautifully musical, it reminds us who we are, and who we might be. It would also appear from the smiles of every theatregoer leaving the building, we are more or less the same.

Matilda runs at Leicester Curve until 24 March. It will then continue touring until 17 August 2019.

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