Review: Matilda – Cambridge Theatre *****

As you walk into The Cambridge Theatre it would be easy to think that you’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up in an aviary.  The air is thick with excited chatter as children and adults settle themselves down for an afternoon of pure theatrical gold. In this more intimate space the brightly coloured bricks that form the architecture of Rob Howell’s set cascade over the edge of the proscenium arch, crawling up the side of the auditorium with the tenacity of ivy. Crayoned scribbling on the walls hint at anarchic school kids and so long before a cart wheeling child even tumbles on to the stage this production is exploding out of the theatre.

This feeling of bursting at the seams is one which typifies the exuberant Matilda The Musical. Brilliance shines out of every nook and cranny as in one fell swoop the answer to the problem of the modern musical is unleashed in glorious technicolour.

Matilda is a triumph of imagination over imitation, of quality over the bottom line. In the middle of a West End riddled with copycat movie musicals The Royal Shakespeare Company have done something extraordinary. It must have taken bravery to program this potentially expensive unknown theatrical entity but they have succeeded in pulling together a creative dream team who have shown they are more than worthy to take on the legendary Roald Dahl.

Dennis Kelly’s book marries a heart warming story with a solid dose of the acerbic grotesqueness that children adore

Tim Minchin’s music is full to the brim of heart lifting optimism and zany verve and his lyrics never fail to astonish with their wit and down right intelligence. The A-Z ‘School Song’ is just too clever for words and the melody of the frankly beautiful ‘When I Grow Up’ soars as high as the swings that fly over the audience during it. Dennis Kelly’s book marries a heart warming story with a solid dose of the acerbic grotesqueness that children adore and he successfully breaths humanity into caricatures so that we get in Matthew Warchus’ moving production, is a wonderful and often hilarious mixture of both.

Bertie Carvel almost steals the show. As the gargantuan Miss Trunchbull he lurches around stage with all the menace of a heavily and particularly vicious spider. But carvel is also strangely as light as a feather; to see him twirl a gymnast’s ribbon is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Peter Darling’s punchy choreography is powered through by an athletic and acrobatic cast, many of whom aren’t even 14.

Cleo Demetriou puts in an inspiring and heartfelt performance as the Matilda at this matinee, again showing that our diminutive heroine is a force to be reckoned with. You’ll have heard this before but these young Matildas really are outplaying most of their fellow West End leading ladies, and they’re not even (ahem) half their age.

But the most powerful thing about Matilda The Musical is its message that reading is to be nurtured. In a country beleaguered by austerity measures that include the closing down of libraries left, right and centre this suddenly feels like a vitally important, even subversive, idea to be making a song and dance about on a West End stage. ‘The Smell Of Rebellion’ is in the air indeed.

***** 5 stars
Booking until October 2012
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