Theatre Review: Matilda at The Alhambra

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s much-loved Roald Dahl adaptation makes its Northern premiere in Bradford where Leo Owen caught the show

THE stage is very fittingly framed by alphabet letters and book covers as mournful sounding music accompanies the appearance of a Birthday banquet. Precocious children pop up, singing “My mum says I’m a miracle” before overbearing parents proudly snap pictures, readying us for how little poor Matilda’s parents appreciate her. A surgical screen marks a flashback with the words “5 years ago” as a clueless Mrs Wormwood (Rebecca Thornhill) discovers she’s nine months pregnant and gives birth to Matilda, more annoyed to be missing a dance competition than joyful for her new addition.

Adaptor, Dennis Kelly, and Director Phil Bartlett bring Dahl’s colourful caricatures to life from minor characters like the hacking school cook who smokes and extracts a wedgie whilst handing over Trunchbull’s cake to Matilda’s slapstick car salesman dad (Sebastien Torkia); her mum’s comical dance partner Rudolpho (Matt Gillett); Matilda’s cake-loving burping classmate Bruce Foxtrotter (Tom Lomas) and her brother, Michael (Matthew Caputo), clearly inspired by Harry Enfield’s Wayne.

Comedian Tim Minchin’s lyrics are often dwarfed by the volume of accompanying live music, making them hard to decipher at times. Interval entertainment in cabaret style opens the second half performed by Wormwood senior and junior, more clearly enunciating “All I Know I Learnt from Telly”. Lyrics work best during a duet between Matilda (Nicola Trotter) and the escapologist (Steffan Lloyd-Evans) from her stories. Trunchbull singing “Imagine a world with no children” is one of the funniest songs, so surreal it’s reminiscent of Happy Gilmore’s “Happy Place” sequence.

The operatic Miss Honey (Carly Tomas) is exactly as fans of Dahl’s book might imagine, librarian Mrs Phelps (Michelle Chantelle Hopewell) a spirited character and as Miss Trunchbull, Elliot Harper, is particularly well-cast. Suitably funny, mixing pantomime dame and villain, Harper has exceedingly expressive eyebrows and is especially amusing, recalling “her” medal-winning hammer throwing days. Choreographer Jeroen Luiten’s best sequences have Trunchbull throwing Amanda (Isobelle Chalmers) by the pigtails and her wearing an Olympic ring vest wheeled across the stage on a gym horse.

Ben Davies’ set is simple but effective with revolving classroom desks, Matilda’s library stories brought to life at the back of the stage and projections for her acrobat story. “When I Grow Up” is one of the most clearly enunciated songs, well-choreographed by Luiten who ably utilises Davies’ swings, slide, over-hanging foliage and green lighting.

Dahl’s humour is wonderfully realised, particularly in the “biggest burp” scene that’s made all the funnier by the moving accompanying music, slo-mo and narrative (“it was like the entire world went silent for that burp to exist”). Although vocals need to be clearer, ensemble performances are spot on, choreography is slick and set changes seamless. The true stars of the show are the child actors who have a phenomenal amount to remember. It’s easy to see why this ambitious show took seven years to adapt and why it has won so many awards.

Matilda shows at The Alhambra February 19-March 23 as part of its first UK tour: