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Review: Matilda the Musical in Melbourne

An award-winning musical has come to Melbourne this year in the shape of a pint-sized girl with unkempt hair and an appetite for knowledge.

That’s right, Matilda the Musical has arrived at the Princess Theatre for a limited run.

The musical from the Royal Shakespeare Company is based on the much beloved book by Roald Dahl, and much of the audience comprised adults who had clearly grown up with the classic tale (myself included).

matilda-the-musicalPhoto: Matilda the Musical

Matilda the Musical: Melbourne Review

The story is centred around the little girl whose birth was a cause of great distress to her self-obsessed mother and whose existence remains a mystery and an inconvenience to her crooked father. She finds no respite at school either, where a vitriolic principal uses fear to control the classroom.

It doesn’t exactly sound like an enjoyable musical, yet this show is spilling over with comedy. From Matilda’s throwaway comment about learning Russian so she could read Dostoevsky as it was written to the burp jokes targeting the many kids in the audience, the show always has you eagerly anticipating the next quip.

What else would you expect when the electric music and witty lyrics have been written by Australia’s own musical comedian Tim Minchin?

“Even if you’re little, you can do a lot, you mustn’t let a little thing like ‘little’ stop you.”

There is something Tim Burtonesque about the production. There’s a frenzied pace to the spasmodic dance numbers, a crookedness to the sets, an extravagance to the costumes, and an underlying darkness to the story.

After all, Matilda’s is a world where sons still precede daughters, child abuse (both physical and mental) is commonplace, and where children are victims of their own circumstances.

But not Matilda. Like the novel, Matilda’s story is one of empowerment, not victimisation.

“Just because you find that life’s not fair, it doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it. If you always take it on the chin, nothing will change.” Matilda sings in one of her opening numbers.

There are departures from the novel we’re familiar with; Matilda is a skilled storyteller and the story she narrates throughout the show borrows from her own experiences, reflecting a child who longs for a happy ending, but doesn’t know how to make it happen.

An alphabet patchwork display colours the stage, but the musical’s true genius lies in the way sets and props are used. In one scene, school students climb the domineering school gates while others insert boxes through the gaps for the climbers to stand or sit on. It’s impeccably timed – one wrong move would require some quick improv.

But ultimately, it’s the cast that makes this show what it is, from Mrs Wormwood’s zesty dance partner to Matilda’s Turrets-inclined older brother. They’re all brilliant, but Matilda (played by Tiana Mirra on my night) and Miss Trunchbull are standouts.

Sometimes when you watch musical theatre performances, you find yourself wishing you had the skill set required to join in, because a lead is clearly having far too much fun with his or her role. Thus is Miss Trunchbull.

I won’t say any more about it, so you can enjoy the same level of pleasure in the performance as our audience clearly did. Suffice to say I don’t think I’ve seen a performer revel more in a role than this one (with the exception, perhaps, of Craig McLauchlin in A Rocky Horror Picture Show).

And of course, our Matilda was a darling; a sincere performer of just 11 years old, who channels an electric energy into her heartbreaking performance.

There’s a reason this musical has achieved such critical acclaim. It is both heartfelt and uproarious. It will make you feel like a kid again. Scrap that. It will make you wonder if that kid in you ever really left.

Matilda the Musical Melbourne Tickets

Matilda the Musical in Melbourne is enjoying a run at the Princess Theatre until early September.

Beware, restricted viewing tickets do cut off a portion of the stage. We had seats on the far left of the Dress Circle, where a bulky light impeded a full view and the sharp angle cut off a large chunk of the left side of the stage. You still see more than enough to have an amazing night, but you may miss the full effect of some larger dance numbers.

If you’re keen to go, I recommend getting in quick with bookings as performances are filling up fast!

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