I began my last blog noting the dangers of a flawless review, the kind that make shows into entities bigger than themselves and often fail to justify the hype. And indeed, it was those very reviews that sent me off to see Matilda the Musical, where I sat awaiting a five star feast for the eyes and ears that would leave me begging for more. But unfortunately, while it may have been a five star show for kids, there was little for the few of us old enough to purchase alcohol at the bar to engage with.
Of course, people might think that as a book aimed at children, the musical should follow suit. But many adaptations from such stories into stage productions defy age constraints and have produced entertainment that people of all generations can enjoy. This, sadly, is where Matilda falls short. That, and the fact they have removed what are (in my opinion) the majority of the best parts from the original. Or made them worse. Neither of those options is really ideal when you’re paying £60 for a ticket.
The bare bones of the story are still there: bookish girl with foul parents gets terrorised by the evil headmistress and everything works out alright in the end. But that is largely where the similarities end. Instead of getting to know Matilda’s character, or her lifelong struggle with the aforementioned grotesque guardians, we are subjected to long periods of her talking to her local librarian, and several songs exploring the neurosis of a psychologically damaged Miss Honey.
Characterisation was one of the biggest issues for the piece, and Bertie Carvell’s Miss Trunchbull, which has been undulated in praise by critics, did nothing to allay this. There is no doubting that he was vile, as the horrible headmistress should be, but his claw-like hand affectation and lack of vocal projection did not seem to strike fear into the hearts of the young audience members as it should have done. My biggest worry was not getting locked in the chokey after the bell rang, but rather avoiding the oceans of spit spraying out over us poor spectators in the front few rows of the theatre.
The fact that Trunchbull is played by a man, I can deal with; in fact, it may even be an inspired idea. But from then on, things are so over the top: the hairy warts on his face, the mangled false teeth, the bosom that sits unhappily above the waistline – it was all just a bit too much, and diluted the brilliance of Dahl’s character. This, coupled with Matilda’s severely socially retarded brother (who also doubles as a tie-chewing older pupil at Crunchem Hall…one dimensional much?), the hideously precocious stage school kids who take on the roles of Matilda’s peers and the fact Tim Minchin’s songs were, in the main, forgettable, combine to make a show that falls well short of the mark.
In fairness, watching the film, which was a true stalwart of my childhood, one week before the event was probably misguided. And Kerry Ingram, who played Matilda, did a reasonably good job (peculiar facial gurning aside), especially when dealing with her wonderfully wicked parents played by the fantastic Josie Walker and Paul Kaye. But the real show-stealer was Rob Howell’s utterly brilliant set; a kind of Willy Wonka’s factory for books that really came alive in the ensemble pieces. Revolting Children, a catchy number that comes near the end of the show, really got the crowd going in the way that the entire musical should have from the get-go. But for the most part, this musical was simply fine, and when billed as ‘the hottest ticket in town,’ this failed to make the grade.