Matilda the Musical review

MATILDA THE MUSICAL

21 February – 17 March
Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

One of the most iconic heroines in children’s literature took the West End and Broadway by storm, and now she brings her brand of adorable, inspiring defiance to the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.

Matilda the Musical is based on the beloved 1988 Roald Dahl book of the same name, which was adapted into a film directed by Danny DeVito in 1996. This musical features a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, with original direction by Matthew Warchus. The production was developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and went on to win five Tony Awards and seven Olivier Awards. Matilda the Musical is currently tied with Hamilton as the musical with the most Olivier Awards.

The title character is a preternaturally gifted five-year-old whose talents go unnoticed by her callous and shallow parents, the Wormwoods (Stephen Jubber and Claire Taylor). Matilda finds solace in the library, where she regales the librarian Mrs Phelps (Nompumelelo Mayiyane) with stories.

Matilda begins primary school at Crunchem Hall. The school is presided over with an iron fist by the sadistic headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Ryan de Villiers), a child-hating former Olympic hammer-throwing champion. Matilda’s kindly form teacher Miss Honey (Bethany Dickson) recognises that Matilda is way ahead of her peers and wants to move her up to the Primary 5 class, something Trunchbull vehemently opposes. Matilda soon galvanises her fellow students and Miss Honey, leading a revolt in the school against Miss Trunchbull, unearthing startling secrets in the process.

The production that has arrived in Singapore is the International Tour, which originated in October 2018 in South Africa. The distinctive set design by Rob Howell, who also designed the costumes, has been retained and ingeniously adapted to tour. The set has a Scrabble tile motif, and the sometimes-messy, sometimes-garish, always-charming look fits into the show’s concept of a five-year-old’s view of the world. The show also features illusions designed by Paul Kieve, and a signature number in which actors on swings fly out over the audience.

On the surface, Matilda the Musical looks silly and over-the-top, but that exterior belies great depth and poignancy. This is a story about a misunderstood, unloved girl who stands up for herself, takes on the world and along the way, finally finds an adult or two who cares. The musical’s broad, sometimes rude humour and loud, over-the-top performances are very much in line with author Dahl’s sensibilities. The Crunchem Hall crest is a drawing of a child being hit over the head with a hammer – Dahl’s books often feature children facing off against grotesque adults, stepping into a cruel world and shaping it for themselves. Matilda is perhaps the best example of this in his bibliography.

The show’s signature songs “Naughty” and “When I Grow Up” convey a child’s defiance and wistfulness in elegant, honest terms. Minchin’s lyrics burst with Dahl-ian wit: Trunchbull sneeringly says of “the odour of rebellion”, “This headmistress/Finds this foul odifer-ous-ness/Wholly olfactorily insulting.” There are moments when the music plays up the chaos that surrounds Matilda, and other moments that are lyrical and quiet – the transition between these modes never feels abrupt or jarring.

The title role is shared by four young actors: Singaporean Sofia Poston, who played the role at our performance, and South Africans Lilla Fleischmann, Morgan Santo and Kitty Harris.

It must be incredibly daunting for anyone to get onstage in front of an audience of 2000 and perform, let alone for a nine-year-old. The role of Matilda is a demanding one that Poston tackles with remarkable confidence. She strikes the balance of portraying a character who’s precocious without being obnoxious. Of the four actresses playing Matilda, she is the youngest and physically the smallest – this enhances the ‘David and Goliath’ factor intended when Matilda faces off against Trunchbull. A tiny powerhouse who’s cute but not twee and who believably conveys an unbreakable fighting spirit, Poston has more than done Singapore proud as the country’s representative in the lead cast.

Ryan de Villiers is a magnificent Trunchbull, clearly relishing every second he’s onstage. The character’s costume creates a comically nightmarish figure that de Villiers captures with remarkable physicality. The role is typically played in drag, because casting a tall, physically-imposing man enhances the afore-mentioned David and Goliath element. De Villiers must perform gymnastics in his restrictive costume, which he does with delicious aplomb. Trunchbull is by design a cartoonish villain, but de Villiers still makes her utterly threatening and finds whatever thin sliver of soul is buried deep within her.

Bethany Dickson, who has been the leading lady in South African and touring productions of musicals like The Sound of Music, Singing in the Rain and Grease, plays Miss Honey with the gentleness and timidity one expects from the character. The bond between Miss Honey and Matilda is a key emotional component to the show, and one that Dickson must develop with four different young actresses. Miss Honey is the nurturing presence who finds her own voice when Matilda enters her classroom and her life, and some of the musical’s most touching moments are between Miss Honey and Matilda.

Stephen Jubber and Claire Taylor ham it way up as the Wormwoods, and are complemented by Kent Jeycocke as Mrs Wormwood’s dance partner Rudolpho. These are parents who are afraid that their child is too intelligent and reads too much – while many Singaporeans can relate to the ‘school is prison’ element of the show, this seems a touch more absurd. It’s all a piece of the musical’s heightened nature, and Jubber, Taylor and Jeycocke prove adept at physical comedy.

The standouts among Matilda’s schoolmates include Jack Fokkens as Bruce, Taylor Salgado as Lavender and Joshua LeClair as Nigel. At our performance, Amanda was played by Kitty Harris, one of the other Matildas, meaning each Matilda must also learn the part of Amanda. This reviewer was a touch dispirited to see the “floss” dance popularised by Backpack Kid/Russell Horning and later featured in the online game Fortnite make an appearance, but perhaps that’s just down to this reviewer’s own crustiness and resentment.

Matilda the Musical is a triumph as an adaptation and as a standalone piece of musical theatre that serves as a showcase for incredibly talented performers. It’s funny, moving and has its share of gasp-inducing set-pieces. It’s also a great opportunity for families to have post-show discussions about education, what it means to raise and nurture children, and growing up. It’s youth in revolt in the most enchanting way.

Jedd Jong

Photos courtesy of BASE Entertainment

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