Review: Matilda The Musical, Sunderland Empire, until June 2

Matilda on tour
Matilda on tour
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What a Dahling show!

Fans of Roald Dahl’s beloved novel about an indomitable five-year-old whose passion for books is only matched by her innate sense of righteousness will be more than familiar with Matilda. But for this interpretation, writer Dennis Kelly has sprinkled it with some real theatrical magic.

Matilda on tour

Matilda on tour

There are, of course, no songs in the book, but Tim Minchin has wonderfully captured Dahl’s child-like zest for life and love of burps with music and lyrics that blend seamlessly with the beloved characters.

They’re all there - the dim-witted Mr and Mrs Wormwood, the sweet Miss Honey, the gluttonous Bruce Bogtrotter and the gloriously grotesque Miss Trunchbull - but there’s also the addition of the love story of an acrobat and escapologist which allows us to step inside Matilda’s vivid imagination.

It’s not often that a narrative features a little girl in the hero role, but Annalise Bradbury, who played Matilda on press night (the role is shared on tour by four actresses), did a great job of portraying this most spirited of characters as she outwits her parents and brings justice to Miss Honey’s cause.

Granted, Matilda has telekineses on her side, but the message that you can control your own destiny and fight for what’s right is powerfully portrayed and little girls sat near me were whooping from the edge of their seats for this pint-sized protagonist as she rises up against the dreaded Trunchbull.

Not everyone thinks Matilda is so great, however. Sebastien Torkia and Rebecca Thornhill are brilliantly funny as Mr and Mrs Wormwood who think their ingenious child is a little creep who should be ditching Dostoevsky and reaching for the remote like other kids. Mrs Wormwood is as maternal as the microwave she uses to nuke her meals, while Mr Wormwood thinks books are for bores, leaving Matilda feeling lonely and isolated. Most musicals would gloss over the gloom, but, as you’d expect from a Royal Shakespeare Company production, this is story-telling at its finest which covers the full gamut of emotions.

Bringing the fear was the ferocious Miss Trunchbull and Craige Els was deliciously disgusting in the role of the hammer-throwing headmistress with a top knot and Les Dawson-esque bosom.

I loved to hate Miss Trunchbull when I first read Matilda as a child and Craige was excellent as one of Dahl’s most brilliantly-drawn characters. I almost felt five again as he started sniffing the air to find out who’d eaten his cake and held onto my hair as he grabbed Amanda Thripp by the pigtails and hurled her into the audience, which was theatrical trickery at its most magical. And I was almost as excited as the little girls around me when she got the ultimate comeuppance: a newt in her knickers.

Her subjects at Crunchem Hall are also brilliant, especially little Lavendar (Isobelle Chalmers), the gleeful instigator of the newt drama, and Bruce, played with real gusto by Elliott Stiff.

The group scenes as they fly through the air on swings to When I Grow Up and stamp the floor in Revolting Children are a real delight and are catchy enough to become the classic show tunes of the future.

Don’t believe me? Take your own little maggots along and see the magic for yourself.