Some brilliant set pieces make Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical highly enjoyable, even if it doesn’t quite match the stage show
“The ears of small boys do not come off, they just stretch”
The path for stage musicals turning into film musicals has been littered with quite a few recent misfires, whether critically or commercially, so I think it is fair to say that many a collective breath was held at the announcement of a cinematic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical. And whilst it doesn’t hold a candle to the RSC’s stage version, for me, it is a grand example of the format switch mostly working.
With much of the original team still intact – Matthew Warchus directing again, Dennis Kelly adapting his own script, Tim Minchin on music duty again, Ellen Kane’s choreography, Rob Howell’s costumes – so much of the show’s magic is retained. An anarchic but fun sense of energy pervades and the set pieces have to be seen to be believed, the level of dancing is at times astonishing (big up Meesha Garbett’s iconic scene-stealing Hortensia).
Alisha Weir nails the title role, a slightly solemn presence added a needed note of pathos, against the cartoonish grotesquery of her parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough chewing the scenery in much reduced roles, Matilda’s brother has been disappeared entirely!). Weir bonds beautifully with Lashana Lynch’s ethereally kindly Miss Honey (who rightfully makes us cry in the gorgeous ‘My House’) and clashes magnificently with Emma Thompson’s fearsome Miss Trunchbull, the cruel headmistress.
Thompson clearly relishes the darkness that Kelly and Minchin lend her with Trunchbull’s words and the way in which it is cleverness that undermines her is a key part of the beauty of the story. The switch to a bit of misplaced CGI nonsense late on thus feels unnecessary and overall, the film does feel a smidge too long, the increasingly restless noise of the kids in the audience a clear indicator of that (I’d’ve cut the new song at the end for starters).
For me, the film works best when it is in the realm of fantasy – the bright colourwash of the opening ‘Miracle’ proves a charming entrée but sadly not typical of the whole. The issue with rooting the story in ‘the real world’ is that the suspension of disbelief that comes with sitting down at the theatre is lost – here, when a teacher offers to have a child come live with her, you’re wondering what would Ofsted say about the lack of safeguarding. Enjoyable in the end, but no match for going to see the musical in a theatre.