Matilda - review

Cambridge Theatre, London

Those who think that the West End is always dumbing down and that an intelligent musical is an oxymoron will have to stay behind for detention with the diabolical Miss Trunchbull.

Writer Dennis Kelly and composer and lyricist Tim Minchin go to the top of the class with this anarchically joyous, gleefully nasty and ingenious musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's story about a girl, Matilda, played tonight by Sophia Kiely, who scoffs Dickens and Dostoevsky like other kids eat sweets.

Sadly for the loveable moppet, her TV guzzling parents think she is just a jumped-up germ. Mum knows her brainy daughter is the best argument yet for population control. Dad thinks you don't need to be clever if you can sell.

This classy and ultimately touching addition to the West End proves him wrong. It wears its learning and wit proudly, but has undoubted box office appeal too: it is likely to do for the RSC for the next 25 years what Les Mis has done for the past 25.

If anything, it is actually richer than Dahl's novel. It captures all the original's delicious nastiness, particularly in depicting Matilda's school, Crunchem Hall (motto: "children are maggots"), run by the fearsome Miss Trunchbull, but it also celebrates the solace of books and the transforming powers of the imagination.

The message, that you can control your own story, and rebellion and protest can defeat the bullies, is deeply embedded. Mind you, telekinetic powers help! But even so, when the tots rise up against Trunchbull it is as glorious a moment of rock'n'roll inspired self-determination as you'll ever see in the theatre. Like Matilda herself, the cleverness is evident in Kelly's nifty script, which never shirks the cruelty, or Matilda's feelings of rejection and loneliness, even as it offers children launched into outer space via their pigtails. It's also apparent in Minchin's witty lyrics and playful tunes, in Rob Howell's design with its piles of books and alphabet blocks, and in Matthew Warchus' production keeping things nicely on the boil without ever exhibiting signs of hyperactivity. The production has a razor-sharp tongue-in-cheek edge that cuts in at the slightest hint of sweetness. Yet seldom has the inner rage of the hurt and powerless child been so effectively dramatised.

That everyone is having a good time is apparent in every performance, particularly the children who are terrific. Nowhere is it more apparent than in Bertie Carvel's show-stopping turn as Miss Trunchbull. Imagine a cross dressing King Herod on steroids with a jutting bosom that is deployed like a weapon of mass destruction to wipe out small children at 100 paces. It's an evening of unadulterated bliss. As Matilda would say: "You could have heard a fly burp."

• This footnote was added on 25 November 2011. Four actors take it in turns to play Matilda: Eleanor Worthington Cox, Cleo Demetriou, Kerry Ingram and Sophia Kiely. Lyn Gardner saw Kiely. This has been corrected


Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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