BETHANY DICKSON AND Kenneth Meyer are the two best reasons you need to see Matilda: The Musical. This internationally feted production which pushes kids to their very limits boasts polish and cohesion, humour, cruelty, victory and madness, is bruised by sound design, in the Johannesburg venue.
Matilda is the little girl, coined by Roald Dahl, born to parents who are total pillocks with shallow values and stupid lines. She finds her identity, love and value in books. But there’s more: she’s no goody-two-shoes; armed with her great intellect and the fire one gets from reading lots of stories, she’s one of the gang in the fight against evil which is personified by the bullying Miss Trunchbull (Ryan De Villiers), who has Olympic Games credentials as a hammer thrower.
To all intents and purposes and given the show’s litany of awards garnered all over the world, this is a top class production. But you might be disappointed with the loss of lyrics as the sound is ramped up all the way to the top. Those lyrics are feisty and fine and have internal rhythms, wit and wisdom that resonate with the flavour of Dahl’s delicious, quirky writing. When the sharpness of their specifics is blurred, you’re left stumbling through the bones of the story.
And that’s not such a bad thing: That story is close to that of the 1996 eponymous film, which saw Mara Wilson in her fabulous big screen debut as the child in question – and the child performers in this big work are totally extraordinary, in their pitch and presence, vocal strength and sheer stamina, making it’s particularly delightful to see youngsters such as Lilla Fleischman, Levi Maron and Jack Fokkens growing through the ranks of grand musical performance.
But as always, there are strange decisions taken in a giant musical production of this nature, which feel like they play to a lowest common denominator of an audience. For one thing, ugly, stupid and revolting are turned on very loud when it comes to most of the grown-ups in the tale. So loud that they’re crude and pathetic, rather than funny or interesting. For another – and this is a decision which rests on the international decision- makers rather than local casting – it’s odd that the scary woman antagonist, Miss Trunchbull is played by a man.
And while De Villiers is competent in this role, he’s unequivocally a man. The horror evoked by Pam Ferris in this role in the 1996 film was a lot more credible. Indeed, if you cast an eye at scary, cruel women in productions, you’ll find many, including the fabulous Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia in the 2018 TV series of A Handmaid’s Tale created by Bruce Miller, or the extraordinary Kathy Bates in the 1990 film of Stephen King’s Misery. Women can play hard and fearsome, too, and Miss Trunchbull feels anachronistic in a crudely drag role.
But it is Dickson’s Miss Honey and Meyer’s interpretation of both the doctor and the escapologist that hold a crystal clarity that keeps you attuned to the lyrics, the humour, the choreography and the characters, all at once.
On the whole, with its tricks and strobes, satisfyingly brisk and complex choreography and a set that boasts all the bells and whistles you can dream of, it’s a show that carries the mixed flames of end-of-year theatre extravagance rather than cream of the crop production.
- Matilda: The Musical is written by Tim Minchin based on the book by Dennis Kelly and the character evolved by Roald Dahl, and directed by Matthew Warchus. It features design by Rob Howell (set and costume), Hugh Vanstone (lighting), Simon Baker (sound) and Paul Kieve (illusion), Christopher Nightingale (orchestration and additional music), and Peter Darling (choreography), is performed by Jasmin Colangelo, Ryan De Villiers, Londiwe Dhlomo, Katrina Dix, Bethany Dickson, Sinéad Donnelly, Lilla Fleischman, Jack Fokkens, Michael Gardiner, Kitty Harris, Keeran Issacs, Robyn Ivey, Kent Jeycocke, Stephen Jubber, Weslee Swain Lauder, Joshua LeClair, Levi Maron, Nompumelelo Mayiyane, Carlo McFarlane, Ipeleng Merafe, Kenneth Meyer, Daniel Parrott, Adrianna Patłaszyńska, Jonathan Raath, Megan Saayman, Taylor Salgado, Morgan Santo, Cameron Seear, Claire Taylor, Logan Timbre and Zac Gabriel Werb. The live band, under the direction of Louis Zurnamer and Jessica de Koker, features Brian Smith/Carl Ashford (woodwind), Alex Urban (trumpet), Siyasanga Charles (trombone), Jarryd West (drums), Sean Sanby (bass) and Rina Schutte (cello). It performs at Teatro, Montecasino complex until December 2, and at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town, from December 11 until January 15.