We’re lucky to have Matilda the Musical tour through Birmingham this summer, saving me a trip down to the West End. Now, I’m not a massive musical fan, but I do enjoy a handful of productions (my personal favourites being Les Mis). Considering that 1. Matilda was my favourite childhood novel, 2. I respect RSC productions and have high expectations for the quality of their shows, and 3. I enjoy Tim Minchin’s comedy (check out Dark Side and If I Didn’t Have You), this combination really should have nothing wrong with it.
The set had a number of technical sliding elements, and visually there was so much promise.
One impressive ‘scene’ involved a wall where boxes were slotted in through out the ‘ABC/School song’; the technical finesse, accuracy, speed and timing necessary for such a scene should be credited to the technical crew. The use of swings in the set design were also fun.
Yet there was so much that let me down. As an avid Roald Dahl fan, I knew that there would be changes from the original text (of course there are certain limitations on conducting ‘telekinetic’ tricks live); I generally have no issues with adaptations. But one (script) change really niggled at me, and that was the decision to make the librarian, Mrs. Phelps, a Jamaican lady with heavy make up and a costume which was arguably “cultural”, but perhaps bordering on the stereotypical. Did they feel the need to do that just to tick the “Diversity” box? And if so, why make it so over the top? And in fact, in emphasising this particular element, it creates a very stark irony when the performer herself cannot hold a good Jamaican accent! (Why not have an English accent, or English with a slight accent as an option (debatable if the character is 1st/2nd/3rd generation British)? – ok, I hear the post colonial arguments as well, if you want to make this even more complicated…) So why was it so necessary to make this change? I would imagine there are varied perspectives on this; but for me, this stuck out like a sore thumb, and not for the better. It could have worked as a creative decision, but in its current form… I’ll leave it with a tentative “hm”.
As an actor and producer myself, I can absolutely understand that working with children in the entertainment industry is not an easy job for all involved. Yet, when audience members are forking out a good £50 per ticket (it was an early birthday present for myself, and ultimately it really wasn’t worth the money or time), we don’t expect there to be mic drops (not the intentional kind), missed lines, or bung notes… Perhaps some may argue “it was an off day”, but we’re talking professional theatre here, people. This wasn’t a matinee. There really can’t be any excuse. I kept wondering if the off-notes were part of the music (the songs are musically complex), or if it were the performers who were off key. The children were rather difficult to understand when 1. they talked over each other, 2. they screamed into the mics, and 3. when some of the actors over-enunciated their lines which actually had the reverse effect of being understandable (this failure I believe is down to direction rather than simply delivery). Either way, I know I’m not the only one with complaints from overhearing some parents and their children during the intermission. Unfortunately for us, one of the worst performers of the night was the lead, Matilda. I understand that the touring cast may not be the same as the West End cast, but there still needs to be standards.
The only people who seemed to enjoy the show seemed to be super fans – and when I say ‘super fans’, they were people who ALREADY knew the songs, bought the CD and had the Trunch hoodie (and sometimes even sang along…).
Although not worth the money we paid, the show wasn’t wholly terrible; the set was interesting enough, and I did appreciate the Wormwoods’ performance in particular; Mr Wormwood commanded the stage, and the new element of Mrs. Wormwood’s dancing was a complimentary addition appropriate to the musical genre (great adaptation choice here). The Trunchbull, as iconic as this character is, did not let us down. A personal giggle I had was when Lavender turned out to have a Geordie accent – super cute! I bet that’s exactly what the casting director thought as well!
This is a show young children would probably enjoy, although as a performance as a whole, it’s not that clever, and overall lacked creative direction. It felt like a high school play, which, considering how this musical has subsequently become a goldmine for educational materials, shows that it probably works best in that arena.
With high expectations for a West End touring show, 2 stars out of 5 would be being generous.