No adaptation has successfully lifted Roald Dahl’s world out of the books to the extent that Matilda does. Perhaps, with Rob Howell’s refreshingly abstract set design encasing the entire show inside an environment made up of novels and over-mutated Scrabble tiles, it could be argued that this is because it never truly does leave the book: it simply takes us in. Also tying in beautifully with our brainy heroine’s awareness she’s in a story, the musical is an advocate for reminding us that we shape our own narrative.
As the Dahl intended, the child characters are the ones with one foot in reality, whilst the adults are played absurd and they don’t come more absurd than Miss Trunchball – modern musical’s best villain. Almost like an infant Blackadder, Matilda is the straight-thinking observer to an exaggerated world. Scribe Dennis Kelly may side-line Matilda’s powers until later on, but he keeps things focused on the most important power: knowledge.
The archetypal songwriting of Tim Minchin keeping the characters governed by the Dahlian language we know and love, it gives the musical its own stylistic identity which, as Les Miserables and Wicked have previously shown, is key to withstanding the ever-oversaturated tide of the West End.
James Horscroft, Matilda the Musical at the Cambridge Theatre, 18/01/2017