How easily this stage version of Roald Dahl’s novel could have gone wrong, with little bookworm Matilda becoming too nauseating, nice Miss Honey too sweet and nasty Miss Trunchbull too vicious. But, in fact, the creative team behind this RSC musical (first seen in Stratford last year) pitches the tone beautifully. They catch Dahl’s peppery, mischievous, dark imagination and tell his story of the gifted Matilda, her ghastly parents and her wicked headmistress with real zest.
They create a show that appeals to children with its monsters and mess, and to adults with its message that reading is cool. Dennis Kelly’s script is witty and acerbic, Tim Minchin’s songs cheeky, stirring and touching by turns and Matthew Warchus directs, entirely appropriately, like a lad left unsupervised in the science lab. On transfer, it has become overly shrill in places: the parents, in particular, are too loud and pumped up. But it’s still dark, daring and a lot of fun.
Rob Howell’s flexible set creates a magical cavern of books and words – rather like the inside of Matilda’s head. At home her dodgy car-dealer father and vain, salsa-dancing mother find her love of reading peculiar (“What’s wrong with the telly?” they shriek); at school, her teacher Miss Honey recognises her genius but is under the thumb of Miss Trunchbull.
It would be hard to better Bertie Carvel’s superb delivery of the sadistic headmistress. Monumentally tall and shaped like a sack of lumpy potatoes stacked on to spindly legs, he is mesmerisingly vile. His fingers twitch constantly with suppressed rage and he suddenly launches into wild activity, whirling a small girl round by her pigtails: his unpredictable outbursts of temper will chime with everyone’s memories of terrifying teachers.
This blend of precision and archetype is matched by Lauren Ward’s gentle, yet not saccharine, Miss Honey. Meanwhile, Cleo Demetriou (one of five Matildas) is lovely in the central role, making her character solemn, brave, but also vulnerable.
It is a story about oppression and standing up to bullies, but also a hymn to the power of the imagination. Kelly’s script emphasises this: here Matilda creates a story that sniffs out the wicked truth about Miss Trunchbull. Above all, it transmits a great passion for literature. My 10-year-old companion loved it and, on arrival home, made straight for the book. Matilda would have been pleased.