Bristol Theatre Reviews

REVIEW: Matilda The Musical Bristol Hippodrome

Matilda Musical Review Bristol Hippodrome:

09 May 2019 at 7.30pm

I think the testament to a great show comes when you quip one-liners in the days following the performance. I admit with Matilda The Musical, it took two viewings to give me clarity on what my opinion of it was.

After press night, I wasn’t keen on it, probably a controversial opinion given the hyperbole spreading across Bristol social media. By chance, I ended up at the show again the very next night. Come the next morning, we were throwing show lines about the state of classrooms and teaching methodology at each other.

The show feels a bit like what would happen if you put the Mary Poppins musical, the RSC and several boxes of Scrabble tiles into a bag, shook it and threw it at a stage. Some of it is hit and some of it miss. At times, there’s a sense of dissonance. Is this a play? Is this a musical? Perhaps a play with music would have been a better aim. 

It’s not entirely faithful to the original story. Matilda is arguably Roald Dahl’s best book. It’s dark and doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter. But it also has a magical element to it, over the top characters and crucially, childhood resilience.

There is a convoluted story arc throughout featuring an acrobat and escapologist. It feels tedious, not really necessary and at times, confusing. It’s not helped by the sound quality which is often poor and with Tim Minchin’s wordy lyrics hard to hear. At one point I missed an entire section.

Sticking with Minchin for the moment. I thought his music for this was pretty poor and at times a wall of noise.

The exceptions are probably Miracle and When I Grow Up, also both key moments of exceptional direction.

A second moment which felt entirely unnecessary was the Russian gangster section at the end. It pointlessly prolonged the duration of the show clearly past what younger audience members were prepared to put up with.

The emergence of Matilda’s magical powers towards the end of the story is a key development. This is massively underplayed here and a section that would have benefited from more artistic licence. In a theatrical era where we can have the kind of magic that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child manages, a wobbly cup felt like a real let down.

There are really witty moments in Dennis Kelly’s book, most often around wry observations about teaching and parenting. Had Roald Dahl’s story not been thirty years old, it might have felt more like a current political satire. Crunchem Hall feels like an Ofsted Outstanding School and Miss Trunchbull a cross between a 2019 academy head and a PE teacher from the 90’s.

Elements of the staging are inspired, especially the precision choreography and movement. School Song, with the gates and blocks and the acrobatics of The Smell of Rebellion are two such places.

One thing that is indisputable is the cast, who fully deserved their standing ovation. Olivia Cleverley led the show with an astounding performance as Matilda. Incredibly, it’s her professional debut, with her biography only stretching to singing in the school choir.

This is a really demanding show for the young actors. They are entrenched throughout the entire performance, not occasionally wheeled on and carefully chaperoned off.

Lily Van Veen was also a delight at Lavender, capturing that perfect blend of cheek, over enthusiasm and lack of impulse control prevalent in young girls.

Elliot Harper, however, I could have clapped all night. His performance as Miss Trunchbull was bang on the mark, probably more than he realises. I have definitely had meetings with this headteacher.

His character may be the main baddie of the show, but it never veers towards pantomime villain and truly encompasses the right level of horror and fun. If ever a Roald Dahl character leapt off a page, this is it right here.

For the last year, Bristol has been eagerly anticipating the arrival of Matilda. There’s been a big build up since tickets went on sale a year ago. I think this often means a show becomes a victim of its own success. Hype is infectious, and I’ve had more than one message from friends who felt it didn’t live up to their expectations.

Matilda is a great show and has some inspired moments and a phenomenal cast. Clearly, selling tickets is really important, but those tickets are expensive. Considering the hype, is the show worth the price? Absolutely, this is a quality show. It has high production values and touring theatre, especially on this size and scale is more expensive than the average audience member would imagine. But it’s not quite the mythical perfect creation I was expecting, which is the result of a national sales campaign which possibly has the Excitement Dial turned up a bit too high.

Autism Alert: At the end of song Revolting Children near the end of Act Two, there is the sudden loud bang of a confetti canon.

Matilda The Musical is at The Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 08 June 2019.

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