Way back in 2010, we spent a few days in Stratford-upon-Avon, to see in the New Year. Of course, we planned to go to the theatre while we were there, but we were winging it, and didn’t check what was on. We just assumed there’d be a Shakespeare, and thought we’d pick up tickets on the night. So we were disappointed to find nothing from the Bard on offer, and grimaced at the thought of the only thing there was: a kids’ musical. Still, we didn’t have anything else to do, so we wandered disconsolately up to the box office, only to find that there were no seats left. Double dejection. “There are some standing tickets,” we were told. “They’re £5 each.” We dithered. Did we really want to spend a couple of hours on our feet watching a play we weren’t that keen to see? “It’s only a fiver,” we reasoned. “If we don’t like it, we can leave at the interval.”
That night, we were treated to the delight that is Matilda the Musical – one of the most fortuitous accidents of our lives. Of course we didn’t leave at the interval: we were captivated. Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly had created a masterpiece, and we’d been lucky enough to stumble upon it.
Of course, the raw material they had was good. Roald Dahl’s Matilda is an engaging character: a little girl with more wit and gumption than any of the adults in her life. At the tender age of ten, she realises that she can’t put up with either her parents’ wilful neglect or her cruel headteacher’s bullying. After all, “if you always take it on the chin and wear it, nothing will change”. It shouldn’t take a child to put things right, but she only knows two decent grown-ups: Miss Honey, who is stymied by her own fear, and Miss Phelps, who doesn’t know the dismal truth, only the fairytale Matilda has concocted for her. It’s a David and Goliath tale, of pantomime proportions.
I am excited to see the film version of this (by now) hit stage show, and it doesn’t disappoint. Alisha Weir imbues Matilda with just the right amounts of sass and vulnerability, all righteous anger and secret yearning. Emma Thompson’s Miss Trunchbull is a towering threat, oversized to illuminate the mountain Matilda has to climb; she’s clearly revelling in the role. Indeed, there’s a sense of relish from all the adult actors playing against type: Lashana Lynch (Miss Honey) unleashing her softer side and some seriously impressive vocals; Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough taking a break from the highbrow as Matilda’s comedically grotesque parents. It’s a fun, feel-good film – despite the horrific violence and cruelty it contains – with a bright, rainbow palette, and the sense, all the way through, that Matilda will triumph.
The young cast are adorable – cute, but not overly contrived. Andrei Shen (Eric), Charlie Hodson-Prior (Bruce), Rei Yamauchi Fulker (Lavender), Ashton Robertson (Nigel) and Winter Jarrett-Glasspool (Amanda) make a formidable team, following Matilda’s lead and ultimately freeing themselves from Miss Trunchbull’s clutches.
Matthew Warchus, who also directed the theatre version, makes the transition to film successfully. There is an element of staginess, it must be said, but only in the best possible way: those huge, ensemble dance numbers are a delight.
With kids or without them, Matilda the Musical feels like a Christmas must-see this year.