Review: MATILDA THE MUSICAL – Cambridge Theatre, London

Cambridge Theatre, Earlham Street, WC2 9HU

I’m almost lost for words before this show even starts. The entrance and auditorium are covered in letter building blocks and children’s writing, allowing one to become completely immersed in Matilda’s world immediately upon entering the theatre. Further study permits the realisation that it is, in fact, a Scrabble-type board of interlinking words which, when mixed with the blackboards and chalk drawings, seals the wonderful sense of expectation for this much-hyped musical. The stage is set in much the same way, against a backdrop of library books, further delving into the world of Matilda Wormwood and her love of stories.

The show opens with the exceptionally talented younger cast members singing “Miracle” – a song about how special they each are in the eyes of their parents. The laughs start almost immediately, particularly with a brilliant scene between Mrs Wormwood (Josie Walker) and the Doctor (Tim Walton), where she discovers she is pregnant: “What’s wrong with me? Am I… FAT?!” she shrieks. Much of Tim Minchin’s humour is evident throughout the musical numbers, with his unusual ability to make the most unlikely lines rhyme.

A few years on, and Matilda is the girl we all know from Roald Dahl’s wonderful story. Much maligned by her parents and about to start school, it is immediately apparent that Matilda is exceptionally gifted, reading books aimed at a much higher level than her young years suggest. In this performance, Matilda is played to perfection by Cleo Demetriou, who delights the audience with her exceptional voice and acting ability, displaying the vulnerability, confidence and complexity of her character flawlessly.

The librarian, Mrs Phelps, is played by Melanie La Barrie who has the uncanny ability to make the audience laugh with just a look or a shrug of her shoulders, while Bertie Carvel’s
wickedly funny Miss Trunchbull is every bit as terrifying as in the original story. Carvel plays this part incredibly and delights the audience in his portrayal of the overbearing Headmistress of Crunchem Hall. Although a relatively small part, credit must also be given to Peter Howe for his excellent portrayal of Michal Wormwood, who is the petulant and slightly backward but much-adored Wormwood son. However, I do feel guilty singling out these particular members of the cast, as there was not one weak performance from anyone.

Miss Trunchbull’s insistence on adherence to the rules is in direct contrast to an earlier musical number – Naughty, in which Matilda suggests you have to be a little naughty at times. There are also some very clever parallels between the emotional journeys of Matilda, Miss Honey (played with refreshing vulnerability by Lauren Ward) and the Acrobat in the story Matilda tells to Mrs Phelps.

The costumes, designed by Rob Howell, are exceptionally true to the original story and enhance each character immeasurably. Peter Darling’s incredibly inventive choreography is every bit as brilliant as his work on Billy Elliot, and is orchestrated with precision by the cast. The set, also designed by Rob Howell, is another piece of brilliance, with seamless integration between scenes. Lighting (Hugh Vanstone) and sound (Simon Baker) are designed excellently and used to create atmosphere in a variety of inventive ways. Matthew Warchus’s direction on Matilda the Musical uses every inch of the stage to dazzling effect.

Several jaw-dropping surprises are in store throughout the show, but particularly the well-known scene where Miss Trunchbull swings Amanda Thripp (Lily Laight) by the pigtails and throws her. Although we do not see the throw (for obvious reasons – as much as I adore realism in theatre, even I have my limits), we do see her being swung around by her pigtails, and a particularly clever use of sound and lighting suggests an extraordinarily huge throw before she falls through the roof, to be caught by some of the cast, to much gasping from the audience.

The final number – “Revolting Children” is outstanding and sung brilliantly by the children who manage to drive the evil Miss Trunchbull away (thanks, in no small part, to Matilda’s unusual abilities).

In the final scene, the loose ends of the story are tied up to wonderful effect by the librarian telling the final chapter of Matilda’s Acrobat and Escapologist story, while a remarkably similar scene is acted out by Matilda and Miss Honey. Without giving too much away, the parallels we notice earlier are explained and explored in much more detail.

I was initially intrigued by how a Roald Dahl story would work as a Royal Shakespeare Company production, with lyrics by Tim Minchin, but the result is an absolute visual and musical feast. There is plenty for both adults and children to enjoy, with multi-layered jokes and some outstanding performances from cast members of all ages. No amount of words can really do this most excellent piece of musical theatre any kind of true justice.

Matilda is a girl who loves stories. I know she would love this one almost as much as I do. Easily the best new British musical since Billy Elliot.

Matilda the Musical plays at the Cambridge Theatre until 17 February. Tickets, priced from£20 to £59.50, from