Every so often shows come along that divide opinion; people either love it, or they won’t. Sometimes it won’t be as black and white as that, which is one of the things that fascinates me as a lover of theatre. On Saturday 22nd, I had one of my most highly anticipated days of theatre going in my calendar, with a trip to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda the Musical. As it falls in neatly with the point I began this blog with, I’d like to fast forward to the evening and our visit to Matilda.
Opening at the RSC’s The Courtyard Theatre in Stratford upon Avon in November 2010 before transferring to London’s Cambridge Theatre in October 2011 and of course based on Roald Dahl’s classic tale about the little girl who dares to change her destiny, Matilda the Musical is written by playwright Dennis Kelly, features music and lyrics by Tim Minchin (with additional music, orchestrations and supervision by Christopher Nightingale), direction by Matthew Warchus, production design by Rob Howell, choreography by Peter Darling, lighting by Hugh Vanstone, sound by Simon Baker and special effects/illusions by Paul Kieve.
Matilda was never my favourite Dahl book as I was growing up (that honour is shared by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Danny Champion of the World and James and the Giant Peach), though I’m very fond of the film. So if the book isn’t my favourite, what made me want to see the musical, I hear you ask? Admittedly, instead of any kind of overwhelming desire on my part it was a combination of word of mouth from friends, sheer curiosity because of the number of awards its won, the casting of Alex Gaumond, and quite simply a decision to see something we hadn’t before.
In my experience, all of those friends who have seen Matilda the Musical are full of nothing but praise for it, as are all the critics. Given all that, I was confident I’d also fall into the ‘I love Matilda’ camp…
Sadly though, I didn’t. It was worth seeing, but I personally don’t get the hype and won’t be returning anytime soon. Let’s me explain my reasoning a bit, shall I? My main gripe was the story, more specifically; it was how Miss Honey’s back-story is handled. I have no issue with Miss Trunchbull being Miss Honey’s aunt, in fact this reveal is a favourite part of the book and the film, but I did not see the point of turning it into a story that Matilda tells Mrs Phelps about an Acrobat and an Illusionist. The whole ‘Miss Honey, I’ve been seeing your life!’ thing made me cringe.
Another thing that really put a dent in my enjoyment was the fact that when the cast all sang together, I personally found it really hard to understand what they were singing; especially during School Song (literally the only thing I remember from this number is: ‘just you wait for Phys Ed!’) and Revolting Children. This is a real shame as I am not for a single minute suggesting the kids aren’t talented, they really are. Maybe it was the fact I just wasn’t inspired by many of the lyrics – there were songs I loved, mainly Telly, When I Grow Up and Miracle, but overall I just wasn’t wowed. The lighting was a real pain from my seat at the end of row N, I remember having to look away or close my eyes whenever the lights were on the audience as they often shone right in my face.
It’s not all doom and gloom though! I think what sets this show apart are the special effects – some of them are very clever; I particularly enjoyed Miss Trunchbull Hammer- throwing poor Amanda because of her pigtails and Matilda writing on the chalkboard with her powers to scare Miss Trunchbull off. The sets are really impressive as well, as is the production design; much as I didn’t understand School Song, I loved all the older kids climbing the school gates with all the letters of the alphabet appearing on blocks all around for them to climb on and such, and thought the swings in When I Grow Up were an awesome touch.
Lollie, our Matilda, did a great job. Her renditions of Naughty and Quiet were really confident and her performance overall was really sweet and expressive; I loved watching her interact with Miss Honey (Haley Flaherty) in particular. Our Lavender, Jaime Adler was another highlight for me among the kids, especially when she was telling us about the Newt.
Some might say this is strange, but I personally don’t think the kids are the stars of this show. Like I say, I don’t want to suggest for one moment that they aren’t talented, but none of them left a lasting impression on me, even Matilda. The stars for me are the adults; two in particular gave the performances that I loved most, so a word or two on them now!
James Clyde currently stars as Mr Wormwood. What he managed to do really intrigued me, he took the character that I really don’t like in either the book or the film and made him likeable. A lot of the humour in the character really appeals to me, and like Lollie as Matilda, James is wonderfully expressive and animated as a performer. I mentioned earlier how Telly was among my highlights; it had me laughing out loud thanks to a combination of James’s enthusiasm and some really fun and silly literary references, and that’s coming from someone who is what Mr Wormwood would call: ‘a smelly little bookworm!’
When I first heard that the role of Miss Trunchbull was played by a man in the musical, I found it really hard to get my head around. After seeing Alex Gaumond in charge though: I get it. I totally get it. I remember being completely floored by how dark they have made the character, even in comparison to the book or the film… and I loved every minute of Alex’s time onstage; his being there kept me going whenever I found my mind starting to stray back to the Wonka Chocolate Factory in Drury Lane. Having only ever seen Alex as himself, I was really impressed by how he completely immersed himself in the character and commanded my attention. Here’s the rub: the whole ‘Trunchbull as a man’ thing works at least in my opinion because the character is so dark and deliciously creepy, she needs to have that imposing presence and pull off some downright disturbing dialogue that I personally think is better suited for a male actor to play and have fun with. That’s not me trying to be sexist or disrespect the wealth of amazing actresses the London theatre scene has, for me it just works with a man, and wouldn’t have the same impact if it was played by a woman. Alex was marvellous, and I hope he continues to wow audiences as much as he did me.
I’m grateful that I went to see it, if for nothing else than to see what all the fuss is about. Pure and simple though: in my mind, Trunchbull carries the show. And one actor and a song about television that I absolutely adored isn’t enough of a reason to make me want to hurry back. Matilda fans please form an orderly queue: I am now at your mercy!
You may recall earlier on in my blog that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of my three favourite Dahl books. That in mind, you might say that it was a total forgone conclusion that I would adore the show, and you’d probably be right.
Directed by Sam Mendes, music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman, Orchestrations by Doug Besterman, Choreography by Peter Darling, Set and Costume Design by Mark Thompson and Illustrations by Quentin Blake (yes, the wonderful illustrator who collaborated with Roald Dahl on his books), the musical tells the story of the little boy who wins the chance to enter a world far beyond his wildest dreams.
When I entered the Theatre Royal, I had my own moment where I felt a bit like Charlie; given the fact that I had an excellent view from Row K (you’ll know if you know me and my circumstances that a good view at the theatre means so much to me) and knew from the view the audience is faced with: a single open hatch to reveal a bag of cocoa beans, that I didn’t know what to expect, but it was going to be special.
Sure enough, what followed was an afternoon of pure joy. I swear the smile never left my face, and it all began with some awesome illustrations by Quentin Blake detailing how chocolate is made.
One of the things I really loved about this show is how cleverly it’s split. Charlie doesn’t even go to the factory until It Must Be Believed to Be Seen, the final number in the first half, so yes in that respect the first half is a lot slower in comparison to the second. I remember either hearing or reading Sam Mendes say that part of his aim was to almost make the audience forget that Charlie wins his Golden Ticket, and I can see why the production goes this way; not only does it just make sense logistically, but for me it allows the chance for more of an insight into the relationships between characters. We get to know Grandpas Joe and George and Grandmas Josephine and Georgina a little more, as well as Charlie’s parents and therein for me personally lies part of the musicals charm. Nigel Planer, Billy Boyle, Roni Page and Myra Sands star as Charlie’s grandparents, and I fell totally in love with the four of them. Their two big numbers: The Amazing Fantastical History of Mr Willy Wonka and Don’cha Pinch Me Charlie were so fun to watch and had me laughing throughout, because they just delivered such fun and enthusiastic performances, plus Marc’s lyrics and jokes just tickled my sense of humour, like: ‘All the bed’s a stage, dearie!’ and the end of The Amazing Fantastical History of Mr Willy Wonka , where they say respectively:
‘I’ve still got it!’ (Grandma Josephine)
‘I’ve slipped a disc! (Grandpa Joe)
‘I think I need a pee!’ (Grandpa George)
‘I think I’ve just had one!’ (Grandma Georgina)
I mean, Myra’s Grandma Georgina even did the splits for god’s sake, if that’s not impressive I don’t know what is! I especially loved Billy as Grandpa George; he’s a typical ‘grumpy old git’.
Jack Shalloo and Alex Clatworthy star as Mr and Mrs Bucket, and I felt they both gave wonderfully sincere and endearing performances. Though we only see them in the first half and again towards the end of the show, their number If Your Mother Were Here really stayed with me and made me a bit teary!
I probably should point out that I was familiar with the songs having bought the cast recording; I play it to death Some might say this would spoil it for them, but I wasn’t bothered in the slightest; I love all of them and it was just a pleasure to hear and see them played out for myself.
Troy Tipple was our Charlie and I thought he did a good job. He did struggle with some of Charlie’s higher notes, and I personally found his Charlie a little ‘tough’ for my liking- I was expecting naïve and cuteness overload and felt he’d actually be more at home in Billy Elliot (his accent also helped with this idea), but he definitely improved as the show went on and he got a big cheer from everyone when the show ended, me included!
Jenson Steele was our Augustus and he was great fun to watch, he has great comic timing and a strong stage presence. Matilda Belton was wonderfully vile as Veruca; from the minute she appeared her facial expressions and mannerisms were right on the money and I felt a huge pang of sympathy for Mr Salt, the great Clive Carter. Their ‘ballet routine’ during When Veruca Says was probably my favourite of the other children’s starring moments. Mya Olaye had wonderful swagger and attitude as Violet, and Luca Toomey was exactly the vision I had for Mike in my head, along with some brilliant break dancing skills as a bonus.
Without a shadow of a doubt however, this show belongs to Douglas Hodge, and there aren’t enough superlatives to describe how much I adored his performance as Willy Wonka; I know whatever I say won’t do justice to how incredible I think he is. I remember texting a friend during the interval: ‘Douglas. EEEEEEEEEEEEE’ and again when I left the theatre the words: ‘Oh for Christ’s sake. Give the man the Olivier now!’
I was utterly smitten with him from start to finish, and I know that if he doesn’t win the Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical, I will be very disappointed; it was a real honour to see him in the role before cast change in May! What I loved about his portrayal was that he seemed to be able to perfectly blend the elements of Wonka’s personality together, at times he was wickedly wacky; I thought his comic timing faultless and so many of his lines had me cracking up and I loved the way he made his humour and delivery about the subtle nuances, like those little changes in facial expression or the way he emphasised a particular phrase and such; I found myself being totally drawn to him even though he wasn’t the only one onstage, purely because Wonka is such a reactive character. On the flip side, his Wonka is wonderfully warm and sincere, and his later scenes with Troy made me feel all warm and fuzzy. To give you an example, there’s a moment in Pure Imagination (incidentally I’m thrilled this song is used, it remains my favourite part of the original film) where Willy Wonka says:
‘I love my Chocolate Factory Charlie. I love it more than anything else in the world.’ The way Douglas delivered the line was so beautifully emotional and his eyes so expressive it made me cry and gave me goosebumps.
It goes without saying that I thought his voice was incredible, like his take on Wonka’s personality I loved how colourful and nuanced it was and how effortlessly he was able to change it to fit the mood of the song. Strike That, Reverse It was a particular highlight, as were both renditions of It Must Be Believed To Be Seen.
To end without giving too much away, I adored how much this production cheered my inner child and fired my imagination. It’s a feast visually, loads of wonderful costumes, sets and special effects, many of which still have me scratching my head and puzzling: ‘how the hell did they do that?’
It’s now firmly placed among my favourite West End shows, and I will definitely be returning as soon as I’m able.