Fans of Roald Dahl are in for a treat. Capturing the unique flavor of Dahl’s classic 1988 children’s novel, Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical “Matilda” is a modern fairytale that’s at the same time hilarious, poignant and heartwarming.
The show, on its first Asian tour that started in Singapore in February, is on a two-week stretch until next Wednesday at Shenzhen Poly Theater.
Unlike Danny DeVito’s 1996 movie adaptation of the same subject, which was an exaggerated Americanized comedy, the musical is uniquely British.
“You can see it in the productions through the Royal Shakespeare Company, which stands for the British sense of being wonderful and funny,” explained Natalie Gilhome, resident director of the show, at a press briefing Friday afternoon.
Adapted by Tony Award-winning playwright Dennis Kelly with narrative ingenuity, the musical shows a deep respect for the source material. It also boasts a witty original score by Australian comedian and singer Tim Minchin, which sometimes feels classical and at other times is reminiscent of Britpop. The lyrics are either clever in capturing the playful irreverence of childhood or simply beautiful.
The production has sets and costumes by Tony Award winner Rob Howell, who has turned the stage into a literal explosion of books and alphabet building blocks that spills out around the proscenium. The spooky shadows and vibrant rainbow shades of Hugh Vanstone’s lighting wash beyond the stage over the audience, creating an immersive fairytale experience.
Tony Award winner Peter Darling makes sure that the choreography is always narrative-based, and the level of detail is incredible to see in each movement.
Everything we see here is exactly the same as the original West End production, Gilhome said, adding that only the infrastructure has to be taken down, packed up and set up very quickly.
The additional music was provided by Christopher Nightingale, who wrote all the incidental music, said Louis Zurnamer, the show’s music director.
“This is a musical very heavily underscored, so whenever Matilda tells one of the stories, or when something is happening, there is a lot of underscoring with an extra sound, like French film music.”
He said the show is very richly underscored so that the music is always supporting the storytelling. “And the music sounds like nothing you’ve heard before,” he continued. “It doesn’t sound like Andrew Webber, and it doesn’t sound like classical musicals.”
Unlike many other musicals, the two-and-a-half-hour show is led by a young girl, who is on stage for most of the night, which is in itself an inspiring and empowering experience for children, especially girls, Gilhome said.
Five-year-old prodigy Matilda (played by Kitty Harris, Sofia Poston and Morgan Santo alternatively) is the unwanted second child of vulgar anti-intellectual parents Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Stephen Jubber, Claire Taylor). The girl reads books whenever she can, from Dickens to Charlotte Bronte to Dostoyevsky — the latter in the original Russian.
Hiding away from her family, the girl spends long afternoons in the library and tells a fanciful story to librarian Mrs. Phelps (Nompumelelo Mayiyane). While Matilda thinks she is just making up the story, it in fact provides the key to unlocking one of the darker mysteries related to her beloved schoolteacher Miss Honey (Bethany Dickson) in real life.
The gentle blonde Miss Honey is “pathetic” (in her own word), a timid underdog in the school run by tyrannical headmistress Trunchbull (a handsome Ryan de Villiers in cross-dress). Trying to nurture Matilda’s unusual talent, Miss Honey plucks up a lot of courage before she knocks on the door of Trunchbull, trying to convince her that Matilda should be moved to a higher-grade class, only to get herself a scolding.
“Children are maggots; there must be rules and boundaries,” Trunchbull believes.
De Villiers was impressive as Agatha Trunchbull, a former hammer-throwing champion with hair pulled back in a tight bun and a hideous mole in her cheek. She can hurl an insult quicker than the hammer she once threw in the Olympics; her hushed disdain and her indignant outrage feel so real.
In the opening scene of a birthday party, children sing of themselves as their parents’ little angels, miracles, princes and princesses, while the doctor who delivers Matilda sings of the joy of welcoming a new life. But the headmistress hates children. “Imagine a world with no children; close your eyes and just dream,” she croons.
Jubber and Taylor also gave wonderful performances as Matilda’s terrible negligent parents. A tawdry housewife interested in nothing but ballroom dance, Mrs. Wormwood shares her philosophy (looks over books) in an amusing number “Loud” in her first official encounter with Miss Honey. Mr. Wormwood is a slippery used-car salesman. In his delightful skiffle number at the beginning of Act II, he proudly confesses, “All I know I learnt from telly,” his cheap ugly green plaid suit making Jubber’s moves even funnier.
Dickson was sweet as Miss Honey, providing crystalline vocals on “This Little Girl” and a moving account of her shabby dwelling on “My House.”
In the first-night show Thursday, Harris gave a skillful performance as Matilda that is testament to the hard work she put into the show. “The children started months before the adults to rehearse, and it’s a very long, intense training process,” Zurnamer said.
Besides being focused, all three young actresses in the leading role agreed that one of the biggest challenges is to “keep a straight face,” since Matilda is not the normal happy child we often see.
One of the most memorable numbers is the quirky “Naughty,” in which Matilda decides to take action and change the direction of her story. “Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty” to get through life, she sings.
“Children’s imaginations are so wild, raw and untouched,” said Gilhome. “As we get older we tend to squash our imagination down.” She said their imagination spawns some really wonderful role acting moments during the show.
Though not always entirely intelligible, perhaps as a result of the crisp fast-paced British accent, all of the ensemble’s junior cast members offer up an adorable and energetic performance. When they glide back and forth on long rope swings singing “When I Grow Up,” every adult in the audience would feel touched by the soul-stirring mix of yearning and escape back to their childhood.
There are slapstick moments like when Mr. Wormwood finds his hat glued to his hair (a trick of Matilda’s), and Trunchbull gets a newt in her pants, to keep the young audience engaged. There are also moments when the audience is kept on the edge of their seat, like when Matilda tells her fanciful story about an escapologist and his wife, which turns out to explain the mystery of Miss Honey’s parents.
When the Russian mafia boss comes to reckon with Mr. Wormwood, who has cheated him in a car deal, Matilda’s fluent Russian comes into play and helps save her father. Then the family flees to Spain, leaving Matilda in the guardianship of Miss Honey. When the two somersault towards a warmly lighted house that would be their future home, everyone in the audience is applauding with joy.
The show is in English with Chinese subtitles.
Time: 7:30 p.m., July 16-21, 23-24 (July 20-21 also at 2:30 p.m.)
Tickets: 280-1,280 yuan
Venue: Shenzhen Poly Theater, intersection of Wenxin Road 5 and Houhaibin Road, Nanshan District (南山区后海滨路与文心五路交界处深圳保利剧院)
Metro: Line 2 or 11 to Houhai Station (后海站), Exit E