A quarter of a century ago, the RSC co-produced Les Miserables, which has turned into the West End’s longest-ever running musical and a worldwide hit. Now, via an unfortunate detour with Carrie, one of the most notorious Broadway flops when they transferred it from Stratford to New York, they’ve finally hit the musical jackpot again.
Jake Pratt (Nigel) and Kerry Ingram (Matilda) in Matilda, a Musical at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratf Photo: Manuel Harlan/RSC
Matilda, based on Roald Dahl’s popular children’s story, is a big, crowd-pleasing family show. It refills the stock of moppet musicals - from Oliver! and Annie to Billy Elliot - and gives it a giddy and invigorating burst of new life, thanks to the jaunty, tuneful wit of Aussie comedian and composer Tim Minchin’s songs, and a production by Matthew Warchus that has bite, bile and some brilliance. The tone and style is somewhere between Warchus’ own staging of Our House and a kids’ version of Spring Awakening.
A major challenge - and a big part of its success - is to follow Billy Elliot’s lead in making a child actor carry the narrative burden. As played on press night by Kerry Ingram (who shares the role with two other young girls), Matilda’s own story becomes both utterly engaging and full of high, truthful stakes. Ingram brings a quivering vulnerability to the role, but also a survivor’s attack to a character who finds herself cast aside in her own family and finds refuge in books and storytelling.
That anchors the show, even when the adults and other kids around her are painted in broader comic brushstrokes. The role of headmistress Miss Trunchbull may be a two-dimensional comic villain, but entrusting the role to a man gives it an extra grotesque edge, and Bertie Carvel creates a truly memorable monster of her that is full of malevolent danger. Paul Kaye and Josie Walker are hilariously horrible as Matilda’s neglectful parents, and Peter Howe as her brother could in fact also be the sibling of Harry Enfield’s Kevin.
Other triumphs are Peter Darling’s propulsive choreography, which provides a distinctive narrative voice all of its own and Rob Howell’s bright, witty design, based on alphabet building bricks.