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Review Round-up: Matilda is Top of the Class

The hotly-anticipated West End transfer of the RSC's Matilda the Musical opened to critics last night (24 November, previews from 25 October) at the Cambridge Theatre following a sell-out season in Stratford.

Roald Dahl's story of the little girl with astonishing wit, intelligence and psychokinetic powers has been adapted by Tim Minchin (music and lyrics) and Dennis Kelly (book) and is directed by Matthew Warchus, whose previous West End credits include the large-scale Lord of the Rings musical and Ghost.

Bertie Carvel plays formidable headmistress Miss Trunchbull whilst Lauren Ward takes the role of teacher Miss Honey. They are joined by fellow original cast members Paul Kaye and Josie Walker as Matilda's parents Mr and Mrs Wormwood as well as three teams of children in the younger roles. The production is designed by Rob Howell with choreography by Peter Darling.

Matilda the Musical is currently booking at the Cambridge Theatre until 12 February 2012 - though on the evidence of these reviews, we can probably expect an extension announcement sometime soon...

Michael Coveney

"After its cascade of rave reviews in Stratford-upon-Avon last December, I was expecting to really enjoy the RSC’s musical version of Roald Dahl’s brilliant children’s story. And I did. But there are a few bumps in the adaptation by Dennis Kelly, and Tim Minchin’s songs are deficient in nothing except melody. It’s a good stomping, syncopated score, with some incessantly intricate lyrics and some especially good choral numbers for the schoolchildren of all ages, but hardly a tune to savour all night ... I saw the delightful, waif-like pocket dynamo Sophia Kiely ... Bertie Carvel has been rightly acclaimed in this role, which he manages to discharge as a glinting pantomime dame without going too far over the top ... James Beesley ... is just one of many outstanding singing and dancing juniors on show. Top marks and no detention for that lot. If Lauren Ward wasn’t so delightful as Miss Jenny Honey ... you’d say Carvel stole the show. She actually makes Miss Honey as unselfconsciously nice as she is in the book, no mean feat. And she has the best voice in the show, too ... Mr and Mrs Wormwood, Matilda’s ghastly parents, are splendidly caricatured by Paul Kaye and Josie Walker ... You can’t see the band – always a negative in a musical – but Chris Nightingale’s orchestrations are top notch, and Rob Howell’s design, beautifully lit by Hugh Vanstone, is a playground marvel ..."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"When it came to deciding which production should receive the prize for best musical at the Evening Standard Drama Awards this year, there was virtually no debate among the judges. It was crystal clear that the statuette should go to the RSC’s hilarious, moving and magical production of Matilda ... Aussie comedian Tim Minchin has come up with a smashing score ... There is an exuberant sense here of two writers who have clicked together – and magnificently expanded their range ... Matthew Warchus’ thrilling, warm-hearted production, exuberantly designed by Rob Howell and with pin-sharp choreography by Peter Darling, constantly combines comedy with a sense of wonder ... The children in the ensemble are terrific. At the performance I saw Eleanor Worthington Cox achieved a lovely mixture of solemnity and mischief as the heroine ... Full marks, too, to Jake Bailey as plump Bruce Bogtrotter, who proves both hilarious and heroic in the sequence in which he is forced to eat a gigantic chocolate cake. Josie Walker and Paul Kaye are memorably vile as Matilda’s grotesquely vulgar parents, Lauren Ward touchingly sweet as the kind teacher who is bullied herself. But the star turn is Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull, the hammer-throwing champion of a sadistic headmistress ... Carvel ... is at once terrifying and hilarious, and the cherry on the cake of this glorious production."

Lyn Gardner

"Writer Dennis Kelly and composer and lyricist Tim Minchin go to the top of the class with this anarchically joyous, gleefully nasty and ingenious musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's story about a girl, Matilda, played by Kerry Ingram, who scoffs Dickens and Dostoevsky like other kids eat sweets ... This classy and ultimately touching addition to the West End ... wears its learning and wit proudly, but has undoubted box office appeal too: it is likely to do for the RSC for the next 25 years what Les Mis has done for the past 25. If anything, it is actually richer than Dahl's novel. It captures all the original's delicious nastiness ... but it also celebrates the solace of books and the transforming powers of the imagination ... Like Matilda herself, the cleverness is evident in Kelly's nifty script, which never shirks the cruelty, or Matilda's feelings of rejection and loneliness ... It's also apparent in Minchin's witty lyrics and playful tunes, in Rob Howell's design ... and in Matthew Warchus' production keeping things nicely on the boil without ever exhibiting signs of hyperactivity. The production has a razor-sharp tongue-in-cheek edge that cuts in at the slightest hint of sweetness. Yet seldom has the inner rage of the hurt and powerless child been so effectively dramatised. That everyone is having a good time is apparent in every performance, particularly the children who are terrific. Nowhere is it more apparent than in Bertie Carvel's show-stopping turn as Miss Trunchbull."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Matilda is a fabulous family fizzer. It has strong tunes, witty lyrics and enough ‘eew!’ moments to satisfy the most revolting urchin ... It is a measure of Bertie Carvel’s brilliance as la ‘Trunch’ that he nearly steals the show from the delicate sparrow playing Matilda ... Miss Worthington Cox is blessed with a quirky charm and her little classmates are terrific, too ... If Matthew Warchus’s RSC production has a fault it is the overdone amplification. Might a broader stage and bigger theatre have been a good idea? And adult dancers playing some of the pupils don’t add much ... Would Miss Trunchbull have passed her check by the Criminal Records Bureau today? Would Ofsted not have swooped to put the school in ‘special measures’? But let us just pose this caveat about the politics in Matilda. Is there not something to be said for Miss Trunchbull’s belief in discipline? I bet her school would turn out more successful pupils than the spongy-brained loafers who have been minted by the liberal teaching establishment and its factories of bog-standardism. It all ends with the audience uncertain whether or not to blub or cheer. You might even do both."

Claire Allfree

"This is an excellent home-grown British musical, although initially so frantic that, watching Peter Darling’s furious dance routines punched out by the ecstatically well-drilled troupe of children, you start to think you’ve eaten too many sweets. Yet director Matthew Warchus succeeds in adding glorious Technicolor to Dahl’s original written monochrome with a production full of exploding theatrical fireworks ... Matilda combines a queasy darkness with a joyous effervescence ... Carvel holds the show as Miss Trunchbull – a nightmarish icy spectacle of mincing, sadistic camp ... At the same time, Trunchbull beautifully reinforces – along with Matilda’s ghastly parents, the Wormwoods (played by Paul Kaye and Josie Walker) – how, in Dahl’s world, evil is always luridily, even exuberantly physical. Eleanor Worthington Cox’s Matilda (one of four young actresses sharing the role) is an innocent abroad in this world of repulsive adults while among the excellent young cast, Jake Bailey stands out as the beleaguered Bruce. There are quibbles: Minchin’s music at times gallops so fast you can’t hear the lyrics; Miss Honey (Lauren Ward), Matilda’s teacher, her role here expanded, is far too saccharine to belong in a Dahl story and is in great need of a few eccentricities. But Matilda is a triumphant testimony to stories themselves. You leave feeling a little bit giddy."

Dominic Maxwell
The Times

"... Although Matthew Warchus’ pyrotechnical production is faithful to the spirit of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel, and although it makes nods to Quentin Blake’s illustrations too, it makes darn sure to establish a theatrical character of its own. So Tim Minchin’s songs and Dennis Kelly’s script reorder and amp up this story of a book-loving five-year-old genius, the family and horrible headmistress who don’t understand her and the teacher who does ... Four child actresses play Matilda in rotation: on our night it was Cleo Demetriou, who dances, sings, affects a working knowledge of Dostoevsky, and looks a plausible five yet never pleased with herself ... Matilda’s grotesque parents are geared towards the younger audience, but a spivvish Paul Kaye and a peroxide-glam Josie Walker pitch them perfectly. And everyone will adore Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull, the hammer thrower turned head teacher ... Minchin’s songs are, like Matilda, smart but not smart-arsed ... But the upside of that is a family show that you don’t need a family to enjoy, which injects invention and energy to everything it does ..."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Matilda is a gem. On its debut at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Stratford-upon-Avon home last winter, it looked a show of rare inventiveness and charm. Now, as it bursts onto the London stage, it seems every bit as enchanting - a winter warmer but with a nice side-order of surrealism. At the heart of this satisfyingly fresh adaptation of a cherished Roald Dahl story are Australian comedian Tim Minchin's music and lyrics, which ooze humour without veering towards smugness ... Rob Howell's towering design is ingenious, there is delicious choreography by Peter Darling and director Matthew Warchus marries moments of dazzling, noisy brilliance with others of real poignancy ... Matilda, played last night with aplomb by Sophia Kiely, is a sensitive creature ... Bertie Carvel is stupendously good as this hulking villain ... Each of the character's mannerisms feels perfectly calibrated. And there is lovely work all around him. The young performers are energetic and appealing and there are notable contributions among the adult members of the cast, from Paul Kaye as Matilda's greedy, vain and ridiculous father to Josie Walker as her preening mother. This is true family entertainment. Children will enjoy its blissful mix of fantasy and irreverence and adults will savour it for these same reasons as well as a host of different ones. This generous, big-hearted piece is already being spoken of as one of the best new British musicals in years. It seems set to run and run - and deservedly so."

- Natalie Generalovich