Sydney Lyric, August 20
We all know the best children’s books engage parents as well, and Roald Dahl was the master of this. The miracle of Matilda the Musical is not that it offers burp jokes and mock horror to transfix the young and shrewder entertainment for adults, but that it turns grown-ups back into kids. The years roll back like some mist, and you feel that long-lost sense of wonder as well as being caught up in the mad contagion of fun.
That is a mighty achievement from Dennis Kelly (book) and Tim Minchin (music and lyrics). Yet I suspect that director Matthew Warchus (for the Royal Shakespeare Company, using a local cast) might argue that the tallest hurdle to mounting Dahl’s story as a musical was needing an actress young enough to play a five-year-old girl, yet capable of shouldering the role’s singing/acting/dancing demands. Four girls share playing Matilda in Sydney, with Bella Thomas stepping up on opening night to give an astonishing performance. The tricky part is that she must be an entirely convincing genius (infinitely cleverer than any other character; a child who resolves the plights of adults) without becoming insufferably precocious. Thomas, 11, not only nailed this, but added slick comic timing and even deft touches of irony.
The show actually has nine roles for children, and these performers routinely supplied the finest moments: a pint-sized ensemble whose execution of Peter Darling’s challenging choreography was wondrously good. Ethan Puse’s Bruce, Shanice Lim’s Lavender, Ewan Herdman’s Nigel and the diminutive Paris Naumovski’s Amanda all had ample scope to shine, and charmed us into the bargain.
The grown-ups were led by James Millar’s pantomime turn as Miss Trunchbull, the comically sadistic school principal who meets her match in Matilda. Elise McCann is the winsome, warm-hearted Miss Honey, and Marika Aubrey and Daniel Frederiksen wring every drop of crassness and nastiness from Matilda’s parents. Indeed the moment when her father rips up a library book to teach her a lesson feels like not just an act bastardry, but a form of sacrilege in a story in which books have a hallowed place – reinforced by Rob Howell’s enchanting sets.
Because reading hardly rates as stage entertainment Kelly and Minchin have made Matilda into a story-teller who enthrals the librarian (Cle Morgan) with a prescient tale-within-the-tale, one of several extensions the writers have made to Dahl’s original. They have, however, mostly remained true to the author’s spirit, and the writing itself (like the production) is impressively slick, the humour zinging between broad laughs and witty rhymes line by line. Minchin’s music is lively and apt, realised by a little orchestra under Stephen Amos.
The flaw is that a couple of songs, including I’m Here and My House are overly sentimental, a criticism that could not be levelled at anything in Dahl’s book. But then most of the rest is so astoundingly good that one can only agree with Miss Honey’s assessment: “You certainly are a special girl, Matilda.”