A swirling kaleidoscope of words fashioned from building blocks engulf the stage and draws you into the magical world of Matilda The Musical.
It is of course words, and more specifically books, which are this eponymous heroine’s tonic in a topsy-turvy land where children are ‘maggots’, and swung around by their pigtails by their teacher, and adults’ stupidity belies their mature years.
In this theatrical staging of the brilliantly-bonkers book by Roald Dahl all the beloved characters are there: the prat parents, the tyrannical Trunchbull, the gloriously gluttonous Bruce Bogtrotter and the marvellous Matilda whose sense of right and wrong ultimately brings order to her upside down life.
Their tales are threaded together with new characters and embellishments to Dahl’s imaginings with a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin.
This being a Royal Shakespeare Company production you’d expect the storytelling to be better than your average musical, and it is, spectacularly so.
Kelly’s creations, such as the fabulously flamboyant Rudolpho, Mrs Wormwood’s frilled, but dim, ballroom dancing partner, and the story of an escapologist and his lover acrobat which form the spine of the theatrical narrative, blend seamlessly with the characters from Dahl’s pen that have become ingrained in many a childhood.
In fact, you’re never far away from Dahl in this production, from his relish of childhood which flows throughout, down to the badge on the school blazers designed by his illustrator Quentin Blake.
His story is given extra depth for the stage by the playful score by Minchin which has you soaring as high as the actors’ swings in optimistic number When I Grow Up; wanting to get up to mischief in Naughty and longing to swoop Matilda up and take her away from her dim-wit parents in Miss Honey’s haunting rendition of This Little Girl, tracks which are all wrapped up with a joyous lyrical wit.
Top of the class in the show are undoubtedly the four girls who share the role of Matilda - on this occasion played by Emma Moore.
To coin an RSC phrase: though she be but little, she is fierce.
Talk about telekinesis, sat in the stalls I felt like the delicate-looking star was moving me with her saucer-wide eyes as she stared out at the audience in despair of her parents - played with real relish by Rebecca Thornhill and Michael Begley - who think their daughter’s love of books is perverse when they have a perfectly good telly to goggle at.
You’re taken on a journey with this musical, one with real girl power, as Matilda goes from impish acts of defiance, such as gluing her dad’s daft hat to his daft head, to bringing justice for poor Miss Honey, played with sweetness by Laura Tyrer.
Our pint-sized heroine’s arch nemesis comes in the form of the sadistic headmistress of Crunchem Hall, Miss Trunchbull, played to brilliant effect by Craige Els.
With her matron’s bosom and hair slapped to her head in an over-tight bun, Trunchbull rules the school with an iron hammer-thrower’s fist, flinging pupils into the air (a magical stunt in the show which had me scratching my head as to how they did it) and force-feeding them ridiculous amounts of chocolate cake that would make even Willy Wonka sick.
It’s a deliciously vile performance, one imbued with the gleeful grotesqueness and dark humour of many of Dahl’s characters. I almost wanted to be put in detention with the Trunchbull myself just to poke fun at the warted one. Well, almost - I’d like to keep my ears un-stretched.
As for Matilda’s classmates, your own little urchins will no doubt shriek in glee at the scenes with Trunchbull’s revolting children, especially when they plant a newt in her knickers after she puts them through their paces in a vigorous vault scene.
Like each of the scenes in the show, it’s injected with its own piece of theatrical magic as Matilda’s powers come to the fore building to a joyous finale.
Will you marvel at Matilda? That’s like asking if Bruce Bogtrotter likes cake?
•Matilda the Musical at Sunderland Empire from May 8 to June 2, 2018. Tickets go on sale from 10am on Wednesday, April 19 to Theatre Card and Groups and on general sale from 10am Wednesday, April 26. Tickets available from the Box Office on High Street West, via the ticket centre 0844 871 3022* or www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland
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