Tim Minchin

Matilda the Musical

08/12/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

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.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Tim Minchin: BACK

23/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

The tagline for BACK promises “old songs, new songs and fuck you songs” – and that’s exactly what we get. It’s great to see Minchin ‘back’ on the stage, albeit – for today – via the medium of screen. I loved Matilda, and am truly sorry his animated movie was so cruelly canned, but I did miss Tim-the-performer while he was working on those other projects, and BACK is a triumphant return.

I admire his resilience. Whatever private tears were shed over the Hollywood let-down, his public self is irrepressible. And I imagine live performances as popular as these provide quite the tonic for a bruised ego.

BACK is wide-ranging – both topically and musically. There’s an ode to cheese, a rant about progressives’ infighting and a plaintive memorial to a lost loved one; there’s a capella, solo piano and an accomplished eight-piece band. This makes sense: after all, the show is loosely constructed as a memoir, looking back at almost thirty years of an unusual career.

Three hours seem to fly by. Minchin’s ebullience makes him fascinating to watch, as well as listen to: this is as much a spectacle as it is an evening of song. As if his trademark bare feet, big hair and eyeliner weren’t arresting enough, he’s rarely still, jumping on and off the piano, doing backward rolls off the stool, and even sweeping broken glass off the stage (his own glass, I should add; the crowd is on his side).

Standout moments include If I Didn’t Have You, for it’s cheeky observations, and I’ll Take Lonely Tonight, for its wistful honesty, but the whole show works well. I find myself impressed anew by Minchin’s witty lyrics and musical dexterity, and I’m also engaged by his attempt to confront the thorny issue of ‘cancel culture’ from a liberal standpoint, highlighting the hypocrisy of promoting empathy via rage.

The tour is over, but this recording remains, and – if you get the chance to see it – do. Minchin is a joy.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield