Like the gestation of an elephant, this show has been a long time in the making. It was first slated as the RSC's Christmas show in 2020. But we all know what happened then. Now, despite the ever-present virus, it finally makes its appearance before an audience as the first Stratford main house show since the shutters came down in March last year.
There's little doubt that the company has its eyes on a West End transfer. As Matilda the Musical reopens at the Cambridge, everything about this production signals that it could also make the journey south. And it'll probably do very well. While there are few musical similarities between Tim Minchin's adaptation of Roald Dahl and this Marc Teitler-Nancy Harris interpretation of Kate DiCamillo's fantasy novel, the ambition of the show and the no-holds-barred production values mark it out as a piece with long-term potential.
Musically, it follows Teitler's The Grinning Man as an epic tale of mystery, loss and quest. It's nowhere near as dark, however, and unashamedly borrows from pantomime and fairytales in its tone and delivery. The town of Baltese, where it's set, is teeming with curious and quirky characters, among them the orphan Peter Duchene, whose search for his long-lost sister is at the heart of the narrative.
Peter's relationship with the eponymous elephant – conjured from nowhere by a magician at a local opera house performance – helps him discover more than just his missing relative, and the magic inevitably works its spell on the entire town.
Jack Wolfe is enthralling as Peter, innocent and worldly-wise at the same time, beautifully-voiced and poignantly acted, and he's a star who sprinkles fairy dust across the whole show. The magician (Alastair Parker) is held in reserve for much of the story, as is the elephant itself, but both make wonderful impressions when they are finally given full rein. Summer Strallen, meanwhile, is sadly underused as the villainess of the piece, Countess Quintet.
Elsewhere, there are touching performances from Melissa James and Marc Antolin as a childless couple, and a barnstorming second-act turn from Sam Harrison, who delivers the show's standout number, "The Count who Doesn't Count".
But it's the production design by Colin Richmond that steals the plaudits on this reconfigured apron stage in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Part steam-punk, part disused tube station, it drips with atmosphere and – even more than Teitler's imaginative score – sets the tone of awe and scale.
Sarah Tipple's direction does its job admirably, and the 11-strong live band under musical director Tom Brady is as sumptuous as you could wish for. It's a show that desperately wants to be as magical as its titular star and, if it doesn't quite achieve that, it still has plenty to relish.