Matilda holds the record for the most Olivier Awards won by a West End musical: seven in total. Adapted from Roald Dahl’s much-loved novel, it follows a prodigiously intelligent young girl stuck in a beastly school when she discovers supernatural abilities. Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the musical features a superb score by the Australian comedian Tim Minchin, renowned for the wit and agility of his lyrics, while playwright Dennis Kelly’s book catches the grotesque comedy of Dahl’s world.
Matilda opens with a chorus of irritating children, each told they’re a ‘Miracle’ by fawning, doe-eyed parents. For Matilda Wormwood, nothing could be further from the truth. Her ballroom dancing-obsessed mother barely notices her, while her gobby, car salesman father belittles her. They’d rather watch a ton of television, while five-year-old Matilda hoovers up books from the local library.
When she finally starts school at Crunchem Hall, Matilda finds the pupils terrified of their headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Played by a male actor, with broad shoulders and shrill falsetto, she’s one of the most delicious characters on the London stage: a sadistic disciplinarian who takes great pleasure in devising appropriate punishments for pupils. Greedy Bruce Bogtrotter, for instance, is forced to eat an entire chocolate cake for stealing a single slice. Matilda takes an instant dislike to her – and Miss Trunchbull feels exactly the same way.
Her class teacher Miss Honey is the very opposite: gentle, kind and keen to help Matilda learn. She’s browbeaten by her boss too, but during one punishment session, Matilda discovers her special powers: too much brain power means she can move objects with her mind. Realising the possibilities, Matilda vows to train her brain to focus her telekineses and overthrow Miss Trunchbull – but doing so means finding her weak spot.
Matilda is crowned with a stunning score – one of the best of recent years. Several of Tim Minchin’s songs stick in the memory long after the show, especially the melancholic curtain raiser at the start of Act Two, ‘When I Grow Up,’ a song about longing for the independence of adulthood. Despite that, Matilda is really a hymn to childhood and its own particular freedoms, insisting that imagination and mischief are key. As Matilda sings, “Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.”