I came into the theatre to watch this very famous and successful show, fresh from worldwide tours and awards, with a particular sense of expectation. I must have read the book to my children dozens of time, and loved the movie with my kids. Will I enjoy the musical as much? Based on the book by Roald Dahl, this is a story of a brilliant 5 year old girl who dreams of a better life, armed with a vivid imagination, a sharp mind and a little bit of magic.
The stage is set with books and scrabble pieces, words and letters. A buzz of kids voices fill the air, trying to spell out the words in the set, words like maggot (the buzz word from the book) and burp (another Roald Dahl favourite). My 10 year old son, my date for the night, was so excited for the show to start.
For the Perth season, four girls, Izellah, Annabella, Venice and Eva were chosen to share the role of Matilda. Months of rehearsals were required. For opening night, our Matilda was played by Eva Murawski, in her professional debut, but looking like seasoned young actress.
The show begins with a bang, a song called Miracle, each kid boasting of their own uniqueness to their parent’s delight. Matilda’s parents do not subscribe to this idea. Kids are pointless, and certainly shouldn’t be educated. Mr Wormwood (Daniel Frederiksen) doesn’t want another child, let alone a girl, and Mrs Wormwood (Marika Aubrey) is a social climber who wants to be famous and the birth of Matilda gets in the way of her salsa contest. They are brash and horrendous, as all Dahl adults are.
Eva has to sing, dance, act and also carry massive monologues. She is a pint sized delight, tough but vulnerable, warm but focused. She is a beautiful character. She makes the best of being smart, and she’s eternally curious and down to earth about her intelligence.
When she goes to school, Matilda saves her peers from Mrs. Trunchbull, a towering villainess who likes to chuck small kids over the school fence like a shot put. Trunchbull here is played by James Millar, a WAAPA graduate and winner of a Helpmann Award for best male actor in a musical for this role. He is perfectly cast and a high point of the show. He is a tall man, and gets to dress in an awful uniform with large pendulous breasts, and growl at all the kids in the show. He is a pleasure to watch when he is on stage, and his comeuppance is fun for us all. Matilda is nurtured by Miss Honey (Elise McCann – also a Helpmann Award winner for this role) and gets to see a future for herself. McCann is the right mix of sweet and vulnerable and has a beautiful voice and songs that pluck the heart strings – Pathetic, This Little Girl and My House. She is the heart of the show and you root for her to look after Matilda all the way through.
In an interview just after the Broadway run, Minchin said “One of the main things I do is stuff lots of words into a short space of time – and rhyme too much – and that’s something adults enjoy because they hear and understand everything. But kids don’t have to hear every word – they still think rhyming and word trickery is fun.” I found the lyrics are so clever and involved you have to strain to make them out at times, but the timing is perfect and the delivery charming. Eva did a sterling job, showing a deft handle of the large words and the Russian ending. The overt British accent could be toned down a bit but it is this that makes the show so successful, its Britishness is key to our delight.
The show stopper song is When I Grow Up, the famous song with the swings into the audience you can see in any promotional material for the show. It is lyrical and moving, and taps into how we all thought we would feel when we were small. It brought a tear to my eye. The finale brings this song back and the audience gave the show a well-deserved standing ovation.
This show has tremendous heart and intelligence. Seeing the show in Perth, Tim Minchin’s hometown, felt all the sweeter and the crowd seemed to enjoy our local boy done good.
Matilda plays at Crown Theatre until May 7, 2017.