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 The TheatreguideLondon Review

Matilda
Cambridge Theatre   2011 - 

It won two major Best Musical awards before it even opened in London (based on a Stratford run last winter), so this musical version of Roald Dahl's novel had a lot of advance hype to live up to.

And boy, does it ever. 

Without question the best British musical since Billy Elliot, Matilda is witty, tuneful, danceful and delightful. I saw it with a matinee audience filled with young children, and they were all held spellbound – though they could have been running riot for all I knew, because I was held spellbound.

It is just plain fun, from start to finish.

Dahl's tale is of an extremely bright and studious little girl whose anti-intellectual parents ridicule her and whose gorgon of a headmistress thinks all children are maggots and bright children particularly disgusting. Only a friendly librarian and a supportive teacher recognise Matilda's specialness, and so she really has to fight all her battles and win all her victories on her own. 

Does she? Well, of course, but it is touch-and-go for a while. Dahl brilliantly recognised that children instinctively understand and accept that not every story has a happy ending – Matilda punctuates her own adventure by telling her librarian friend an epic tale of her own invention (which will turn out to have a magical connection to the real world) filled with tragedy – and one quality that holds adults and children in the audience is that it is never absolutely certain that things will turn out all right. 

But along the way there is the unambiguous fun of Matilda's cartoonishly boorish parents, the comically monstrous headmistress and a stageful of schoolkids singing and dancing.

Tim Minchin's songs are a lot of fun, and Dennis Kelly's book accomplishes the remarkably difficult task of fitting them in while still remaining true to the letter and spirit of what Dahl wrote. 

The opening number, '(My Mother Says I'm a) Miracle', declares the show's anarchic position by introducing the kids as a bunch of spoiled brats, while 'When I Grow Up' may well replace 'Do Re Mi' as the song every child in the world knows by heart. 

There is a stageful of children, in three alternating casts, and director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling have drilled them to preternatural precision while keeping their individual personalities. 

Four girls alternate as Matilda, and it is barely imaginable that the other three might be as good as tiny Cleo Demetriou, but they cannot possibly be any better. Dynamic and full of personality, Ms Demetriou sings, dances and acts with both talent and assurance. Even more than the boys playing Billy Elliot, she frequently has to hold the stage on her own, and does so like a seasoned superstar. 

Of course she isn't alone. Bertie Carvel revels in the panto dame role of the headmistress, so completely in control that he can make us laugh by standing absolutely still, withholding a line or reaction until we're aching for it, and then topping the laugh when he does deliver.

Josie Walker and Paul Kaye pull out all the stops as the ridiculous parents, Melanie La Barrie is a quietly solid and reassuring presence as the librarian, and Lauren Ward sweet as the well-meaning teacher. 

Bring the kids. Bring your grandmother. Bring the blackest cynic you know. Matilda is as close as any theatrical experience can come to a guaranteed delight.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Matilda - Cambridge Theatre - 2011

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