First published in The Times, Thursday April 4 2019
There is no shortage of stage adaptations of Roald Dahl’s deliciously twisted children’s novels. The playwright David Wood alone has made something of a cottage industry of reworking Dahl’s work for the stage, with some eight adaptations under his belt, including The Witches, The BFG and The Twits.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2010 production of Matilda is a different order of dirty beast altogether. A large-scale musical powered by crowd-stirring showstoppers, the hit show sprang from the unlikely creative partnership of Dennis Kelly, the writer behind such grown-up fare as After the End and Orphans, and Tim Minchin, the Australian musician and comedian.
Pic: Manuel Harlan
At times, even the most dazzling and kinetic shows can appear lost on the vast and unforgiving stage at the Edinburgh Playhouse, but this touring version of Matthew Warchus’s production quickly justifies its reputation, electrifying the 3000-odd people in the auditorium on opening night.
The major achievement of Kelly and Minchin’s collaboration is the balancing act it pulls off between the wickedly misanthropic humour of Dahl’s books and the story’s resonant emotional undercurrents. Miss Trunchbull (Elliot Harper, in a stage-filling performance), the headmistress of Crunchem Hall, calls children “maggots”, swings one girl around by the pigtails and force-feeds chocolate cake to another. Yet, in reveries about her day in the sun as an Olympic hammer-thrower, the bully reveals herself as a truly tragicomic figure.
Pic: Manuel Harlan
The title character (Scarlett Cecil), a five-year-old who devours classic literature and can move objects using her eyes, could easily come across as a little too poised and pious. In songs such as Naughty, which prefigures Matilda’s gluing her father’s hat to his head, and Quiet, Minchin shows us the emotional consequences of the girl’s neglect at the hands of her parents, forcing her to seek refuge in a kinder world of storytelling and invention.
If the balance of sound in this production doesn’t always do justice to Minchin’s delectable lyrics during the ensemble numbers, there is more than enough pleasure to be found in the music and the explosive choreography, created by Peter Darling. While the leads, including Carly Thoms as Matilda’s sympathetic teacher Miss Honey, are excellent, they are almost eclipsed by the supporting cast of children playing Matilda’s classmates. These tiny, fizzing balls of energy scale the heights of Rob Howell’s simple set, dance on moving tables and bring the house down on the show’s final set piece, Revolting Children.