Review: Matilda @ The Bristol Hippodrome
by Danni Gillespie

Photo Manuel Harlan

“The first half is great, about a small girl who can move things with her mind and about a terrible headmistress who lifts small children up by their hair and hang them out of upstairs windows by one ear. But I’ve got to think of a really decent second half.”

- Roald Dahl, 1986 - a letter of apology to his youngest daughter, Lucy, for his lack of new stories.


Matilda is a story that transports so many of us straight back to our childhoods. Whether it was the first time we read this Roald Dahl classic, or watching Danny DeVito as Mr. Wormwood trying to pull his superglued hat off his head; Matilda is a story that holds a special place in our hearts, and a story that many will return to over and over throughout our adult lives. The tale celebrates the brilliance, intelligence, fearlessness and determination of children and astutely observes the different attitudes adults hold towards younger generations. To bring such an iconic story to life on the stage and in a musical capacity is, by no means, a small feat.


Many approached the Roald Dahl estate for such a privilege and many were denied. In 2003, they approached the Royal Shakespeare company, believing the RSC to embody an essential balance of mischief, bookishness and fearlessness that Matilda’s story encapsulates.

The production is an explosion of joy, Roald Dahl strangeness and emotion. The timing and execution of the dance numbers were all executed perfectly from actors big and small. Each move, big or small, always added some beautiful nuance to the story as the ensemble deftly built a contemporary Roald Dahl World. The set design, music (written by Tim Minchin) and the dance sequences (choreographed by Peter Darling and Fabian Aloise), all reflected the absurd and fantastical nature of Dahl’s writings. The precision and comedic timing all worked perfectly yet managed to weave in and balance the seriously and emotive message of belief that Matilda represents: no matter your size or age, you can achieve anything.


The tale revolves around children and so it is only fit that our favourite main characters, Matilda, Bruce, Lavender and friends, are played by a wonderful cast of children. Matilda (Olivia Cleverley) was assertive, just and feisty, just as we remember her from the book itself. The astute, caring and bookish Matilda perfectly juxtaposed her “wheeler dealer,” “looks obsessed” and raised-by-television family. 

"The RSC have succeeded in a wonderful portrayal the playful and witty yet profoundly moving story of hope in such a brilliant way that words can hardly do this production justice: you must simply see it for yourself."

As we all know, Mr and Mrs Wormwood have little-to-no interest in their intelligent daughter’s hopes and dreams; these characters that we hated to love and loved to hate as children are brought to life by Sebastien Torria and Rebecca Thornhill - and we love to hate them all over again!

Miss Trunchbull (Elliot Harper) calls her pupils “maggots”, throws them in the “chokey” and creates public chocolate-cake eating punishments for whichever child displeases her the most. This oppressor is Matilda’s mortal enemy and their disdain for one another is easy to see. Lavender – (Lily Van Veen), Bruce (Charlie Garton), Amanda (Darcy Kelly), Nigel (Alfie Sandersen), Eric (Toby Hales), Hortensia (Evie Allen), Alice (Georgia Mae Brown), Tommy (Oliver Dalby) and Matilda live under Trunchbull’s rein along with the timid, as-sweet-as-her-name-suggests teacher Ms. Honey (Carly Thoms), who offers a glimmer of hope in a child-hating world.


The characters of the story are larger than life. However, it was the little things and the attention to detail that this performance offers that makes it such a success. Each head turn, each longing gaze into the distance and every thoughtful nod to the classic tale brings these brilliant characters to life in this phenomenal adaptation.


Despite the fact that I could never dance like these children can back in my youth, this production invites us to remember what it was to be a child again. The joy, the fearlessness, the innocence, the hope, that wonderful feeling of delight as you make a new friend or see your least favourite teacher nearly swallow a newt. The RSC have succeeded in a wonderful portrayal the playful and witty yet profoundly moving story of hope in such a brilliant way that words can hardly do this production justice: you must simply see it for yourself. As Matilda says, ‘never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable.’ The RSC certainly seem to have taken Matilda’s astute advice. They have definitely not done this by halves; they have created something truly, breathtakingly and joyously unbelievable.

Photos Manuel Harlan

Follow Danni's advice and see Matilda for yourself at the Bristol Hippodrome, running till 8 June 2019. Book tickets here.

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Danni is a Bristol based Freelance Artist and Writer, Editorial Assistant at On the Beat, contributing artist at The Rational Online and an aerial hoopist. 

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