Child’s Play: “Matilda” Still Needs Work

Written by Doug Strassler on . Posted in NY Press Exclusive.


Photo by Nigel Norrington

(This is the fourth and final of a four-part look at West End shows that may ultimately move to Broadway.)

 

Sad new for fans of Matilda, Roald Dahl’s book about a special girl that’s beloved by children and adults alike: rumors of the West End show’s greatness are greatly exaggerated. The musical, adapted from Roald Dahl’s beloved 1988 novel by Dennis Kelly and with music and lyrics from the pen of Tim Minchin, may be selling out its current berth at the Cambridge Theatre and have swept this spring’s Oliver Awards, but the show on display is, in its current condition, one crowded mess of a musical.

 

Such words make for a disappointing stance to take on any show, but these are especially a shame to say regarding Matilda, a story whose very premise Dahl built on the notion that within storytelling lies great power, even – especially, perhaps – for young children. It’s the only hope of escape for put-upon young Matilda Wormwood (a role shared by a quartet of actresses, currently including Lucy-Mae Beacock, Hayley Canham, Chloe Hawthorn and Lara Wollington; at my performance the role was essayed by Hawthorn). Her parents (Steve Furst and Annette McLaughlin) not only disregard their highly literate five-year-old daughter, they actually refer to her as a son. Things aren’t much better at her school, where despite the best intentions of her teacher, Miss Honey (Haley Flaherty), a wicked headmistress named Miss Trunchbull (David Leonard) constantly menaces her young pupils.

 

So Matilda, in Don Quixote fashion, creates fictional stories in which she is empowered enough to fight the adults who torment her; call her the girl of La Mancha. And yes, Dahl’s story should be heralded for saluting the power of reading and of imagination, but those messages were inherent in the book. Director Matthew Warchus’ adaptation, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production, loses more than it can add in translation.

 

Set designer Rob Howell’s busy stage cuts in on the work done by the show’s impressively talented young ensemble, and aural issues pervade the whole experience (Simon Baker designed the sound); “Naughty,” the title character’s first solo number, is hard to make out. Even when Hawthorn can be heard crystal clear, however, the songs often feel off. “When I Grow Up,” a sentimental ballad sung by the schoolchildren, could be moving and wistful if placed later in the show at a more emotionally trenchant point. But falling at the rise of Matilda’s second act makes it feel displaced and cuts in on its sense of nostalgic power. Other numbers, too, suffer from a similar lack of orientation to Kelly’s story.

 

In addition to these structural gaffes, Warchus’ show feels generally unfocused. The spirit is oddly lacking. This is a show that, at present, is neither dark nor playful enough. Many of Kelly and Minchin’s jokes feel jejune but not really suited for either children or parents, though the cast, especially Furst and Leonard, give it their all.

Matilda comes with high expectations stateside, where it is scheduled for a March opening on the Great White Way (such timing boded well for The Book of Mormon and Once).One of the main points of Matilda is, as the title little girl says, “nobody but me is going to change my story.” There’s hope, then, that between now and the time Matilda opens on Broadway, that Warchus, Kelly and Minchin can tighten up this show and tweak it so that this schoolgirl with a big heart and bigger dreams can still make the grade. But it has its homework cut out for itself.

 

Matilda the Musical

Cambridge Theatre, Seven Dials, 32-34 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9HU. www.matildathemusical.com. Open run.

 

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