Note: There has been cast changes since this review!
We are rapidly drifting into that peculiarly English time of year when even the sanest of actors and production companies seem to take leave of their senses. Men dress up as women, women dress up as men and well-worn jokes that never ought to have seen the light of day in the first place are resurrected with abandon.
Yes, panto season is with us once again. But 'Matilda The Musical', even though it is being aired during this silliest of seasons, isn't really a panto, even if it has some hallmarks of that genre.
Based on Roald Dahl's novel 'Matilda' (first published in 1988 and turned into a film directed by Danny DeVito in 1996) the musical was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and has book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. It is the story of an unwanted daughter who turns out to be something of a prodigy. Mr Wormwood is a dodgy second-hand car salesman who rather foolishly sells clapped-out bangers to the Russian Mafia. Mrs Wormwood has a penchant for Latin American dancing and dresses in garish costumes. The Wormwoods dislike their daughter Matilda intensely. They do not understand her interest in books and encourage her to be like her older brother and fall comatose in front of the 'telly'. And Mr Wormwood even goes so far as to refer to Matilda as 'boy' even though she repeatedly corrects him. When Matilda heads off to school she surprises her teacher Miss Honey with her mathematical skills and intelligence. But she falls foul of the child-hating headmistress, the former hammer-thrower Miss Trunchbull.
A small army of children tackle the numerous roles, with multiple child actors rotating the parts at different performances - a nightmare I would think for the production staff, having to rehearse so many actors. But a quick glance through the biogs in the programme tells you that many of the small actors in this cast have more experience than a lot of actors get in a lifetime. They've done it all from The Sound of Music through Peter Pan and Oliver!, covering Macbeth along the way. And this wealth of talent and experience shines through all the performances, including those actors making their professional débuts. There's terrific support from the bigger actors too. In particular, Bertie Carvel makes the most of the plumb role of Miss Trunchbull making her a controlled, but incredibly sadistic head who delights in putting children into the 'chokey' cupboard. Melanie La Barrie is a wonderfully mumsy, story-loving librarian, and Paul Kaye is equally well-cast as the pushy, second-hand car dealer.
On the occasion I saw the show, Cleo Demetriou took the lead as Matilda. Ms Demetriou is an enormously talented young actor with a charming singing voice to match. She combines in the role intelligent confidence with a certain intellectual aloofness, but finally shows she is just a child who needs a cuddle now and then too.
One mum sitting near to me declared the show 'brilliant' and her offspring sat wide-eyed and transfixed throughout as if ET had just landed in person on the stage. In fact, all the children in the audience seemed totally mesmerised even though some of them were barely of school age. Not only that, but many seemed surprisingly clued-in to some of the more adult jokes which are sensibly injected at various points to keep the adults as happy as the smaller members of the audience. However, if my ears served me correctly, there were a couple of lewd comments from Mrs Wormwood which seemed unnecessarily gratuitous given the audience composition.
The second half does not quite match up to the first in terms of the humour and tends towards the sentimental even if the final message about there not always being happy endings has much to commend it. So, I would not go quite as far as my neighbour in describing it as 'brilliant', but Matilda the Musical is nevertheless hugely enjoyable and cracking Christmas fun.
Matilda Tickets are now on sale.
"It is the best new British musical since Billy Elliot."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"It's an evening of unadulterated bliss."
Lyn Gardner for The Guardian
"A beasty baddie and stonking songs"
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail