When Milton Keynes Theatre announced last year that Matilda the Musical was to play an almost five week mid-summer season in the new city, there was a massive rush for tickets to see what has clearly become something of a theatrical phenomenon.
However I must have been the only person in the theatre on Thursday evening who had no idea what Matilda was all about, for having never seen the film, read author Roald Dahl's book or previously heard Tim Minchin's musical score, I was left a little bemused as to what all the hype was about after the first act.
Having picked up so many theatrical awards since it opened at the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon more than seven years ago, I've learned that Matilda the Musical is quite different from the film, while Dahl's original book was adapted by Dennis Kelly and that Minchin – the Northampton-born Australian comic actor – is now a household name in theatrical terms.
In a nutshell, the story involves Mr and Mrs Wormwood – they're slightly better dressed versions of Wayne and Waynetta Slob! – who have an unplanned, unwanted baby daughter which grows into a clever five-year-old who loves to read books.
Saddled with such ignorant disapproving parents, Matilda is constantly called a boy by her shady car salesman father (brilliantly played by Sebastien Torkia) while Matilda retorts "I'm a girl".
Meanwhile her latin ballroom mad mother (Rebecca Thornhill) is far more interested in her sleazy dance partner Rudolpho (Matt Gillett) than her flashly-dressed hubby who I thought was a dead ringer for Monty Python's cheeky songster, Eric Idle!
I loved Mrs Wormwood's "Dinners don't microwave themselves" quip to her equally stupid husband as he tries unsuccessfully to sell some rusty, clapped out old bangers to a Russian. However Matilda (played by Poppy Jones, one of four youngster who share the role), sees the injustice of it and accuses her dad of cheating and lying.
The show certainly opens in a rousing manner with nine schoolchildren attending a birthday party and being joined by several other adults dressed in grey school uniforms.
With Matilda able to read well and do complex mathematical problems, she's sent to school where she meets kind, sweet Miss Honey (Carly Thorns). Truly amazed by a little girl who quotes Charles Dickens' opening lines from 'A Tale Of Two Cities' and also knows how to speak fluent Russian having read Dostoevsky, Miss Honey takes a real shine to her star pupil.
But its Miss Trunchball, the school's much-feared headmistress (so brilliantly played by Craige Els) who steals the show for me. She's downright evil, is a former Olympic hammer-throwing gold medallist, rules with strict discipline, hates books and calls the children 'maggots and worms'… and should they dare misbehave, then it's 'Chokey'!
Els' character really owns the stage, he is nasty to everyone – especially the timid Miss Honey – while the gym class escapades sees everyone making full use of a deep crash mat, vaulting horse and trampette and that really has the audience wildly applauding… it's theatrical brilliance at its best!
For me the second act was more enjoyable than the first after I finally tuned into the children's shrill and sometimes garbled voices – which at times I found difficult to hear or understand – but I did get into it and Mr Wormwood's 'learning from the telly and not books' sequence aided by his dopey, monosyllabic son Michael (a typical 'Kevin-type' scruffy teenager played by Matthew Caputo), was a great opening number.
What followed was 'When I Grow Up' – the only melody I could actually recall after leaving the theatre – which was sung with gusto by the children on swings, the whole sequence being both clever and perfectly choreographed.
Miss Honey, who has a wonderful soprano voice, sings the haunting 'My House' – which turns into a duet – while other characters in the show include an acrobat, an escapologist, a doctor, cook plus various henchmen, the finale seeing everyone whizzing around the stage on colourful scooters singing a reprise of 'When I Grow Up'.
Full marks to all the children, and especially Poppy Jones playing Matilda. The amount of dialogue and stagecraft that she and her fellow actors have to learn is quite remarkable for ones so young.
Matilda is one of Roald Dahl's typical 'good over evil stories' in every sense of the word, it's been beautifully staged by the RSC and is both powerful in its message while being extremely funny and entertaining.
Matilda the Musical plays Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday, 30 June with shows at 7.30pm nightly and matinees on both Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.30pm. For tickets call the Box Office on 0844 871 7652 (booking fees apply) or online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes