Review: MATILDA THE MUSICAL at Adelaide Festival Theatre

By: May. 27, 2017
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Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Friday 26th May 2017.

Published in 1988, English author, Roal Dahl's book, Matilda, won the Children's Book Award that year and was voted the most popular children's book in a World Book Day survey in 1999. It was adapted into a film in 1996, and a musical in 1990, but this musical opened in 2010. The Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned Dennis Kelly to write the libretto and Tim Minchin to write the music for this multi-award winning production.

This is a tale of a neglected child who turns out to be an academic genius and, for good measure, develops the skill of telekinesis. Matilda Wormwood's parents are as mentally abusive as one can get. Her father, Harry, is a slimy used car salesman, happily winding back the speedometers on cars that he hopes to sell to a Russian consortium. Her mother is a competitive dancer, concerned only about her looks and dancing with her part Italian partner. Her brother, Michael, occasionally utters a word, seemingly comatose the rest of the time. By the time that she reaches the age of five and starts school, Matilda has already mastered arithmetic, and is reading her way through the greatest works of literature.

The Russian connection, and the dancing with a part Italian, are both inventions of Dennis Kelly, and are not to be found in the book. Mrs. Wormwood was overweight and went to bingo every afternoon, which gave Matilda time to go to the library. Why writers who adapt another's works insist on making changes and adding ideas of their own, I have no idea. It simply seems egotistical. Had Dahl wanted a ridiculous back-story about two circus performers, who turn out to be Miss Honey's parents, I am sure that he'd have written it himself. Miss Honey's father, Magnus, of course, was a doctor in the book. Although not exactly a purist, still, I could have done without the self-indulgence.

Minchin's music is tuneful and engaging, although I didn't walk out humming the tunes and couldn't recall one now to save my life. This seems odd, as I enjoyed every song at the time. I recall many of the lyrics, and very clever they are, so I am bewildered as to why the melodies elude me. It would take a few more times listening to the score for them to stick and, as the songs are so good, I will be revisiting the soundtrack.

At school, Matilda is placed in the class of Miss Jennifer Honey, who instantly recognises that Matilda should be moved to a far more advanced class. The headmistress of Crunchem Hall Primary School, Miss Agatha Trunchbull, however, refuses to accept that Matilda is anything other than merely another "maggot", her collective noun for children. Miss Trunchbull is a hideous bully, terrifying the students, as well as Miss Honey.

Matilda discovers that Miss Honey is living in poverty and was orphaned and brought up by her aunt who, it transpires, is Miss Trunchbull. Miss Trunchbull has taken over the family home and everything else that should have gone to Miss Honey on the death of her parents. She shows Miss Honey that she can move objects with her thoughts. She uses this skill to write on the blackboard, terrifying Miss Trunchbull into decamping, never to be heard of again, giving everything back to Miss Honey, who takes over as the headmistress.

The Russians, who turn out to be the Russian Mafia, come looking for Mr. Wormwood, but Matilda endears herself to them and pleads for his life. The Wormwoods are permitted to leave, but not before Miss Honey begs to be allowed to adopt Matilda. The Wormwoods are more than happy to accept, and there is the happy ending.

The production is directed with great pace by Matthew Warchus, with choreography by Peter Darling, and the accuracy with which the young cast perform the dance routines would put many an adult musical theatre cast to shame. Energy and enthusiasm abound, as the children almost tear up the stage. There is never a dull moment in this performance.

This story, to succeed as a stage production, must have an exceptional performer in the role of Matilda, and Izellah Connelly is exactly that. If we do not see a lot more of this extremely talented young artist in the years to come, I will be both surprised and disappointed. What is greatly encouraging is that the company has found so many very talented young people to complete the cast, and to find three more casts, as children are not permitted to perform every night. Alice Lowther literally bounced around the stage as Lavender, Matilda's best friend, Paris Naumovski was a delight as the tiny, pigtailed Amanda Thripp, and Dominic Ambrose was a fine Bruce Bogtrotter, with great work by Elias Geffen as Nigel Hicks, Joey Gandin as Eric Ink, Tahlae Colson as Alice, Shyla Farrugia as the older student, Hortensia, and Zac McCulloch as Tommy.

They set a high standard for the adult cast to match, but match it they do. Marika Aubrey and Daniel Frederiksen play the Wormwoods, the world's worst parents, and they make the very most of the roles. Aubrey is incredibly funny as the self-obsessed matriarch and, in Kelly's revised version, implied philanderer. She greatly impressed Adelaide cabaret audiences in her appearance at our Cabaret Festival, so it was always a good bet that she'd be equally marvellous in musical theatre, and she is.

Frederiksen wears the most hideous check suit, as described in the book, and his character is pompous and arrogant in his denial of anything educational or cultural. He is, in fact, straight off the page and onto the stage in a superb depiction of the head of the Wormwood family. He gives a sensational interpretation of the role.

Lucy Maunder plays the appropriately named, Miss Honey, all sweetness and light, without allowing her performance to descend into syrupy sentimentality. Maunder creates the teacher whom we all wish we had had in out first years at school, warm, gentle, supportive, and caring, the complete opposite of the headmistress.

James Millar is hilarious as Miss Trunchbull, the villain of the piece. He struts, growls, shouts, and mentally and physically abuses the children. His Miss Trunchbull is an arrogant tyrant, charging through the students like a combine harvester in a wheat field, with audience laughter following him every step of the way.

There is a great deal to the technical side of this production, as you might have guessed. The extremely complex set and very effective costumes were designed by Rob Howell, the musical side was under the control of Christopher Nightingale, and the busy lighting plot was from Hugh Vanstone, with sound by Simon Baker, and special effects and illusions by Paul Kieve. The band, conducted by Michael Azzopardi, was made up of all local musicians of high regard and never missed a beat.

The standing ovation, cheering, and applause from the entire audience left no doubt of the success of the performance, and I overheard numerous conversations in the foyer in which people were talking about going to see it again. I am tempted, too. This is not just for kids, so don't worry if you have none. The opening night audience was mainly adults, and they were as spellbound as the children in the audience.


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