Review: Matilda The Musical Jnr
Reviewer: RJ Flynn
This is the first Youth Theatre show since 2019’s Gregory’s Girl, which is understandable given the global ‘health snaffoo’ that has been going on. It’s also their best show since the company’s original production of Gregory’s Girl way back in the early 2000’s. Here’s why, this group is absolutely at its best when it tackles material that deals with young people on their own terms, and that is precisely what this show does.
I’m going to begin, somewhat churlishly, with my complaints. I want to point out that any complaints I have are not with the production itself.
The first is with the licensing people who create these redacted “Junior” versions of the parent shows and all-to-often cut out the soul of the piece. This show is less egregious in that regard and the cast and creative manage to overcome the half-loaf provided to them… Just… give them a little more MTI, these amazing kids deserve and so do their audience.
The second was with the audience where some members seem to have forgotten how to behave. When you are in a theatre or cinema, you are not bingeing the spectacle on Netflix. You have a duty of care to those around you and on stage. Nobody needs to hear your commentary on what various cast members have been in previously. If you absolutely can’t contain your inner Wikipedia from exploding from your gob, you can whisper that information to the poor unfortunate who came with you. AND, under no circumstances, should you EVER bring out your mobile phone to check the time, answer a text and ESPECIALLY DON’T FILM THE PERFORMANCE!!! Firstly, because it’s illegal and more importantly, everyone behind you and to the sides of you are distracted by the sudden blinding light in the auditorium, and the light also lights up your big dumb face so it is distracting to the performers on stage too. Sit back and enjoy the show in the moment. You think the performance looks impressive on your 8k pixelated screen, you should see what it looks like with your eyes!!!
Now onto the good stuff. Upon entering the theatre, I was immediately greeted with the answer to the question that has been bugging me for weeks: “What were the box office staff doing with all those pizza boxes?” The anticipation in the room was electric. For a lot of people in attendance, this was their first live entertainment in over two years. They were ready for it! But maybe not ready for how wonderful it was going to be.
Violet Catto Smith as the eponymous Matilda absolutely owns the stage and delivers a fully-formed three dimensional character from her very first line. A generous performance that is allowed to both command and take a step back to allow others to shine.
From there, characters grow to cartoonish size. Beginning with the Wormwood family where Morgan Flannigan and Emily Douglas deliver scene-stealing turns that compliment one-another to deliver a comedy double-act that is frankly knackering and relentless. I laughed until it was painful then kept going. Oscar Lowson rounded out the family dynamic with a performance of immaculate docility that cut through the high-energy of his parents’ farcical shenanigans with aplomb.
At the school, Michelle Bugiel was a beautifully layered Miss Honey, playing innocence, fearful fragility and hidden inner strength that made you instantly warm to her. Meanwhile, Anton Bradbury is a hideous delight as Agatha Trunchbull. The young actor revelled in this monstrous repugnant role and shored up some comedic gold for his trouble.
Frances Walmsley rounds out the main characters with a gentle performance and quite moving performance and Mrs Phelps, the lonely librarian who seeks joy in stories to make up for the lack of it in her own life. Her scenes with Matilda backed by a barmy serialised tale of high-flying suspense and romance acted out with ripely OTT gusto by Tiana Bettison and Joseph Harwood.
If that weren’t enough, there was a whole array of second-tier characters: Matthew McIver-Scott’s Rudolpho’s camp machismo, Poppy Douglas’ Hortensia and Blake Scott as Nigel all stood out with excellent performances from a smorgasbord of great ones. But it was Fergus Innes as Bruce who has lived brightest in my memory. As much due to credit of the young performer as by design of the character on the page culminating in a jaw-dropping point in the song ‘Revolting Children’ where he goes “Full Mariah”!
The songs written by erstwhile comedian Tim Minchin are the best new songs written for a musical this side of the 21st century. Drawing as much pathos as humour and everyone is an ear-worm that stays in your brain for YEARS until you are left babbling lines from ‘The Smell Of Rebellion’ as a long bead of drool hangs from your slackened jaw. The songs are as much part of the characters as Dahl’s original manuscript and the highlight ‘When I Grow Up’ manages the perfect theatre experience of finding a part of you long buried, digging it up, spit shining it and showing it to you as something beautiful and beguiling… and that’s a long-winded way of saying ‘this bit of the show had me blubbering like a toddler which, at that point, was a welcome relief as I was aching from laughter. It goes without saying none of that is possible without being coupled with amazing direction.
Wendy Payn is the perfect director for this, revealing in the macabre charm of Roald Dahl’s celebrated story, and she doesn’t disappoint with a laser-focussed attention to detail. And her cast… Well, to say they rose to the challenge is an understatement.
The Maltings Youth Theatre are back at the height of their collective powers. Strange and challenging times lie ahead with the upcoming renovations to the theatre. But a team this creative won’t be held back just because there isn’t a building to do performances in. So, until they return, I’m starting the chant right here: “We want more! We want more!”
Matilda Wormwood – Violet Catto Smith
Mr Wormwood – Morgan Flannigan
Mrs Wormwood – Emily Douglas
Michael Wormwood – Oscar Lowson
Mrs Phelps – Frances Walmsley
Acrobat – Tiana Bettison
Escapologist – Joseph Harwood
Miss Honey – Michelle Bugiel
Lavender – Willow Elliot
Nigel – Blake Scott
Bruce – Fergus Inness
Agatha Trunchbull – Anton Bradbury
Rudolpho – Matthew McIver
Eric – Robin Pearson
Amanda – Connie Bolton
Alice – Minne Cooper
Hortensia – Poppy Douglas
Cook – Ebba Martin
Mechanic – Joseph Freeman
Sergei – Max Summers
Poppy Ford Freeman
Director – Wendy Payn
Musical Director – Neil Metcalfe
Assistant Director – Ross Graham
Production Assistant – Charlotte Payn
Tech team – Jimmy Manningham
Chaperones – Diane Renner