The genius of Roald Dahl and Tim Minchin combine to deliver essential messages for the modern world to children and adults alike: bullies are weaklings, the screen can rot the brain, too much or too little parental love causes tremendous damage and a teacher can change the world, one student at a time.
Roald Dahl, in his poem 'Television', wrote “they sit and stare and stare and sit until they’re hypnotised by it, until they’re absolutely drunk with all that shocking ghastly junk”. One wonders how he would have reacted to the age of smart phones.
In 'Matilda', he further expounded upon his ideological opposition to the screen and his faith in the inspirational and transformational power of the book. In Tim Minchin’s stage adaptation of the book, Matilda, played on this night by Annabella Cowley, is a profoundly gifted child oppressed by her ignorant parents and her malevolent headmistress, Miss Trunchbull; she finds solace in her saintly teacher, the equally downtrodden Miss Honey. It is a story and a production that has triumphantly dazzled the West End, Broadway and Australia’s eastern states.
As the crown jewel of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, the time has come for Adelaide to stand and applaud, as they did almost unanimously at the final preview performance.
The tiny performers tasked with embodying the title character need to be as much of a prodigy as the character herself. The auburn-haired Cowley was dynamic as she juggled the demands of a role that contains fluent conversational Russian, meticulously timed choreography and some challenging musical repertoire, such as the stream of consciousness opening verses of 'Quiet'. Her diction was crisp and clear, although she could have been more animated with her facial expressions.
Stephen Anderson, as Miss Trunchbull, was hilariously deadpan as the villainous narcissist. Think Javier Bardem in 'No Country For Old Men' or Hannibal Lecter but in a dress. He milks every laugh that can be extracted. Lucy Maunder conveys the sweetness and purity required to be Trunchbull’s counterpoint. The comic relief provided by Daniel Frederiksen and Marika Aubrey and particularly Travis Khan as the faux Italian dancer Rudolpho was perfectly timed.
The ensemble of kids and adults was generally good, but the synchronisation of the choreography will inevitably improve as the season progresses. In the depths of winter and in a world seemingly rife with bullies and intruding screens, 'Matilda' blows away the cares and unshackles the imagination, rendering anything possible.
'Matilda The Musical' plays Adelaide Festival Centre until 16 July.