Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Genius of Matilda On Stage

People accuse me of being quite harsh and judgemental in my reviews, and perhaps sometimes I am, but I argue that you need to be critical so that when you see something really fantastically brilliant you can genuinely appreciate how and why it is so damn good.

Last night my husband took me to see the West End musical Matilda for my Christmas present. We went largely on fact it was composed by fellow Aussie music comedian Tim Minchin. Call me naive, but it was only when we got to the theatre that I realised it would have a lot of child performers in it. (I hate overly sentimental child acting - Castle on a Cloud from Les Mis is my idea of musical theatre hell). And it was only after we'd got some dinner and went into the theatre that we realised the audience was also half full of kids. My memory of Matilda largely centres on Danny DeVito playing the father in the film, and extremely hazy memories of reading the book when I was six, so it was with some level of trepidation that we sat down to watch the show.

Using CGI style shadow puppetry to enhance the storytelling

But it was bloody brilliant. The kids were actually the perfect mix of cute and bratty, never once crossing the line into irritating. The girl who played Matilda was incredibly talented and likeable (they do have more than one cast of kids). David Leonard as Miss Trunchbull was amazing, and had some of the best physical acting I've EVER seen, and Matilda's family, who I vaguely remember being on par with the Dursleys for annoyingly unreadable characters, completely and utterly stole the show. The songs were fantastic, and Minchin's musical knowledge and ability to homage different genres really shone through, reminiscent of The Producers, but with much more heart.

It kind of seemed to be what a pantomime should be, or perhaps it's with Tim Michin's imput it's an Aussie take on pantomime, removing the more obvious, farcical elements of British humour for a more international audience. But the good versus evil, childlike innocence and wonder, an evil villain woman played by a man who you can boo every time she comes onstage, not to mention the original Roald Dahl book, all have an extreme British-ness about them. Unlike pantomime, the humour is much more subtle and intelligent, the songs are good, the design is brilliant, and the acting, well, the acting exists which is more than I can say for any pantomime I've seen.This show has that magical universal appeal that makes it wonderful for both children and adult audiences.

My favourite scene: note the 70s styling including flying ducks, wallpaper and bad art, and the fireplace that spells out soot. Mrs Wormwoods costume is brilliant: she's a ballroom dancer which the costume portrays but is also works for her idea everyday wear.
But for me, the real star was the set design. I love set design, it's one of those areas I know enough about to fudge my way through set design I'm designing a whole show, but am ignorant enough of the building side of it to be blown away by the magic when far more talented people do it. And Matilda's set is the closest thing to perfection I've ever seen. The magic of theatre set design is that, unlike film, it doesn't have to be realistic or believable. In fact usually the more stylised it is, the better. It's an integral part of what makes theatre, theatre. Everything in Matilda was made up from blocks, the walls, the floor, the flats and the proscenium. Some had letters, spelling out words: Matilda's reading habits being one of the most important themes of the story. Flats, school desks and platforms rose seamlessly from the floor, wallpaper in houses was divided into 3 dimensional blocks, and the library was made up from flats with the words 'silence', 'quiet' etc. It was the perfect mix of naive fantasy and very clever self-awareness.

Note the wonderful 'TIME' clock on the flat behind them.

The costume design was also very good, particularly Mr and Mrs Wormwood, and the amazing Miss Trunchbull's costume, which used excellent body padding to play with proportion and really was an essential part of the character.

Set and Costume Designer Rob Howell has a resume the length of Shaftsbury Avenue and has received several Olivier awards. But the thing I found most interesting is that he also designed the atrocious musical version of The Lord of the Rings: a 'so bad it's good' show which juxtaposed brilliant set and costume design with appalling writing, composition, choreography and performance. But it's also the only other stage show where I've seen such skilful use of proportioning in stage costume, giving the hobbits a believable height difference by dressing normal sized adults in clever costumes.

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