“Matilda” – West End


Ladies and gentlemen, Matilda the Musical is a hit. A big, beautiful smash hit. The sort of intelligent, literate musical comedy that makes you want to throw your hat in the air and cheer. This is the kind of show that comes around once in a generation, and will likely run into the next one. Simultaneously touching and subversive, Roald Dahl’s story of an unloved prodigy who learns to stand up to the bullies in her life has become a beautifully realized stage property. Matilda is, to quote from its opening number, a miracle.

A child of exceptional mental faculties, Matilda has taught herself to read and has an unlimited capacity for mathematics.  Her weekly reading list could fill a college syllabus, and her imagination is limitless. But her garish, vacuous parents think she’s a freak, and her head mistress, Agatha Trunchbull, would rather Matilda went to prison for life without parole. The young child must use the extraordinary gifts of her mind to fight the bullying adults, and in that conflict librettist Dennis Kelly and composer-lyricist Tim Minchin crafted a deliriously tuneful and clever musical with astonishing élan, though I do think there should be a musical button to end the first act. (For my thoughts on the score, here’s my post on the original cast album).

Matilda is far more sophisticated than those other musical theatre children who have come before her (Oliver and Annie come readily to mind), and much to my relief – and key to the show’s triumph – is that the role is written and directed to be played like a normal child, minus all trappings of the affected, cloying child actor. The charming, takes-no-guff Sophia Kiely played the role the night I attended. (Ms. Kiely rotates with three other actresses). The role is exceptionally large, with huge monologues, musical soliloquies and exhausting choreography. Ms. Kiely was utterly superb; I was in her corner from the moment she critiqued Romeo and Juliet for having a “touch of stupidity” in her establishing song “Naughty.”

Bertie Carvel is astonishing as Miss Trunchbull. Playing the enormous bully in panto tradition, Carvel finds so many surprising shades: we see not only her villainy but the insecurities, the craving for attention and her femininity. Almost every line and gesture is laugh inducing, with a distinctive speaking voice that only adds to the overwhelming impact of his performance. His second act number “The Smell of Rebellion,” is a physically grueling showstopper, built around a rigorous exercise regimen complete with a trampoline vault. Carvel executes the number without missing a single breath. It’s a marvel, and I hope Mr. Carvel will be brought over to delight Broadway audiences next year.

As for the rest of the adults, Paul Kaye is Matilda’s father, a dimwitted mean-spirit who espouses the pros of “Telly” during interval. Josie Walker decked out in a garish wig and pink fishnets plays Matilda’s narcissistic, dance-happy mother (and is joined by Gary Watson’s deliriously sleazy Rudolpho for a tribute to vapidity, “Loud”). Lauren Ward is warm and endearing as Miss Honey, the meek teacher who, thanks to Matilda, develops a spine and learns to stand up to the oppressive Trunchbull. Peter Howe was hilarious as Matilda’s dimwitted older brother, punctuating scenes with his inane comatose utterances. Melanie La Barrie adds humanity and humor as Mrs. Phelps, the kind librarian who encourages Matilda’s love of reading and story-telling.

Peter Darling’s choreography is inventive and engaging, from the cleverness of “School Song” to the swings of the irrepressibly nostalgic “When I Grow Up” to the Spring Awakening send-up of “Revolting Children.” Matthew Warchus, who was responsible for my beloved revival of The Norman Conquests several years back, is in peak form with a staging that will rank among his best work. Rob Howell’s set, made up of wooden blocks and offbeat, oversize scrabble tiles that spill into the house is a visual delight, a perfect arena for his off-the-wall costumes.

I was so taken with the musical, I bought a ticket for the Saturday night performance. The second viewing allowed me a closer look at the nuances in the staging and choreography, as well as the details of the set. It also gave me a chance to see an entirely different cast of children, with a witty and wise Eleanor Worthington-Cox as the title character. Comparisons would futile, as both young ladies were equally effective in their distinctive interpretations. Also, Paul Kaye was out and I saw understudy Peter Howe offer his own unique, effective portrayal of Mr. Wormwood. I’m quite impressed how the production celebrates performers’ individuality. No matter which cast you see, the show will be in excellent form.

8 thoughts on ““Matilda” – West End”

  1. I’m glad the show lived up to your expectations. I still don’t get why the female character Trunchbull is played by a man. Was there anything he brought to the role that a woman couldn’t? I find the casting irritating and regressive.

  2. Trunchbull is a grotesque, oversized bully and the physical manifestation takes its cue straight from Roald Dahl. Carvel’s performance requires immense physicality on par with Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, including throwing unharnessed children and a second act patter song set to an Olympic workout (Carvel stops the show mid-song) to say nothing of the need to tower over the adults onstage (adults are playing older children at the school). Trust me when I tell you it’s neither irritating or regressive, and in fact one of the most inspired pieces of casting I’ve seen in 12 years of attending professional theatre. It makes even more sense than a man playing Edna in any incarnation of Hairspray (and I loved that show and Harvey’s performance).

  3. Trunchbull, in the world of “Matilda,” is the least womanly woman and is meant to contrast dramatically with Miss Honey, the epitome of gentleness (and Matilda’s savior). I have no doubt that future incarnations of the production will cast a woman in the role (much as Avenue Q’s Gary Coleman has been portrayed by men since its original production) but the creators decided to take a creative risk on casting their unwomanly female villain as a man – a risk that I think paid off tremendously, as it made the contrast between villainess and heroine physical and tangible to the audience.

    Was there anything Carvel brought to the role a woman couldn’t? Simply put: yes. He brought the fact that he is a man, which is exactly what this conception of the role needed to push it into the dark musical comedy territory it so perfectly occupies.

  4. I thought your review captured the show perfectly. I have seen it 4 times now, including a performance at its original Straftford Upon Avon run – and I can honsetly say that I have enjoyed each viewing in equal measure. The first 3 times we took our two young children, and most recently we saw it just the two of us. We have seen so many musicals over the years (and indeed we have staged many with our local Amateur Operatics society) – but none has ever ensnared us quite like Matilda. I put this largely down to Minchin’s music and lyrics, which are so very very clever. The CD has become a permanent fixture in our CD player – and thw whole family knows every word.

    On the matter of Trunchbull – I am firmly in agreement with Kevin; Bertie Carvel’s casting is a stroke of genius – and I believe the role will always be played by a man (and we will surely find out soon enough as Bertie departs in 3 months’ time).

  5. So basically you’re saying that a woman is not capable to playing this female character role…that a woman could never be manly enough to play “her.” Is that a complement? It doesn’t feel like it. Of course, you’re all men and to me it’s descrimination. A woman could easily play “Edna” in “Hairspray,” – the only reason I think it wasn’t a woman in the role is to keep in tradition of the original film. It doesn’t matter because as usual, this is an argument that women will never win as long as men continue to produce.

  6. Ultimately, SarahB, it’s an artistic choice. The creative team made it, and I think it works. If you think it’s discrimination then you have the right to not see or support the show.

  7. I understand and can see where Sarah is coming from – and yes of course a woman can play the role – Pam Ferris memorably took on the role in the film version – however in this stage version it was a creative and artistic decision to employ a male actor – which particularly in England has a strong tradition of role reversal in the arts most notably in Pantomime (the “dame” played by a man and the “principal boy” by a woman).

    It also harkens back to Shakespearean times when women were forbidden to be on stage and men came on stage “Dressed As Girl” (DRAG) to play their parts…

    As has already been mentioned it’s not unknown in American musicals either re Hairspray and Miss Sunshine in Chicago amongst others.

    Bertie Carvel’s inspired creation of the role is much more subtle than a Panto dame and by making the character his own it really works for this production. Theatre and the Arts allow this ability to mix things up for creative reasons and is what can sometimes make for unforgettable experiences. In this case it’s not just Bertie’s performance – undeniably strong as it is – the whole production is exemplary with the other female roles being performed by extraordinary talented actresses – particularly the leading role of Matilda of course!

    Could a woman take over? yes of course they could…and somewhere down the line I suspect the production probably will do so – I for one will be very interested to see how they compare. But for a woman to be cast in the role just because the part is a woman I don’t agree with. The right Person should be cast for the role.

    I hope Sarah gets a chance to see the show – and even if she doesn’t still agree with the casting of the role of Miss Trunchball – I hope she will still enjoy the rest of the show as the vast majority of people appear to do so going by all the reviews and comments littered over the web!

  8. I don’t think you can put Bertie Carvel’s performance on a par with Mark Rylance at all. He’s probably only onstage for about 20 minutes and I did rather think him Pantomimic. The same phrases are used about him which is usually hype. I think the writing for this role is extraordinary and I will be very interested to see who they cast next. We have the finest actors on the planer here in London including Mark Rylance whom Mr Carvel bears no comparison too, the only things they have in common is that they are both Male actors. Rylance has always had the most incredible presence in theatre and deserves the title ‘one of the greatest character actors of our time’ we shall see how Carvel gets on and what he does next will be interesting.

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