By BRUCE DENNILL
Matilda: The Musical / Directed by Matthew Warchus (Resident Director Anton Luitingh) / Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways
Tim Minchin is a flame-haired Austalian pianist, comedian, composer and actor.
Who is nuts.
His turn as Atticus Fetch in Californication, in which he made David Duchovny’s uber-hedonist Hank Moody look subdued is perhaps too fruity to include here, but consider his song Prejudice (below) as an example of his ability to make a complex topic entertaining while also completely thwarting expectations. And looking funny into the bargain.
Tim Minchin is also the man behind the music – pacey, energetic and packed with detail one minute, introspective and emotional elsewhere – and the lyrics for Matilda: The Musical, and his style and penchant for affable lunacy are detectable in the tone and dynamism of the piece. It’s as though the producers have said, “Get the crazy guy on board, let him do whatever he wants, and then throw all the budget needed to make it happen at making it happen.”
Yes, there is so very much more to the musical than Minchin’s contribution: Roald Dahl’s fantastic original story; Dennis Kelly’s clever, sensitive adaptation for the book for the show; the jaw-dropping visuals – multi-faceted set, eye-searingly bright costumes and some wigs that are almost characters on their own; tight choreography; and impossibly controlled performances from the production’s child actors to go with the more predictable quality of their adult colleagues. But it is the manic drive suggested by Minchin’s own stage persona that gives this production a freshness some of its competition lacks, in that, if there is a risk to be taken, the producers and director – and by extension the cast members who must follow their instructions – have gambled on it being worth it, thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the process, and made the show incredibly thrilling as a result.
On this distinctive platform, the cast build one of the most memorable pieces of theatre South African audiences will see this year.
Morgan Santo, Matilda for the opening night (and one of three actresses charged with the role during the run), should be regarded with the same quizzical “But how?” expression directed at all prodigies who have achieved more in their first decade than their parents have in their first four or five. She has a flabbergasting command of all the skills needed – and it’s a long list for this protagonist – and makes tying together a production as large and intricate as this one look effortless.
One of the factors that differentiates Matilda from her peers is her passion for books, which is not shared by her dim, manipulative parents. Superb duo Stephen Jubber and Claire Taylor play the roles of Mr and Mrs Wormwood with perverse glee, outsized and outlandish expressions, and permanent sneers, communicated via their body language as well as their faces and oafish interactions.
The other adult in the piece to actively look down on intelligence, enterprise and literature is the terrifying Miss Trunchbull, a quintessential Roald Dahl villain who is the headmistress at the school Matilda attends and an ex Olympic hammer thrower. Tall, rangy actor Ryan De Villiers, convincingly filled out by a gloriously over-the-top costume and wearing make-up that makes him look not unlike Robert De Niro as an ageing transvestite, unequivocally owns the character, dominating the stage and the laugh count whenever he is on stage. It’s impossible not to feel that Dahl would fully endorse this take on his creation.
Bethany Dickson as the kind, sympathetic Miss Honey, Matilda’s teacher and a staunch supporter of the brilliant youngster, handles just about the only character in the script who isn’t profoundly eccentric with the poise and tenderness you’d hope your own child would encounter in a teacher, thriving in the moments when she gets to sing some beautiful music solo.
There are, throughout the piece, a number of other smaller roles and cameos that deserve mention as well: Nompumelelo Mayiyane as cheerful librarian Mrs Phelps; Kenneth Meyer as the Escapologist, Kent Jeycocke as the scene-stealing Rudolpho and Weslee Swain Lauder as Sergei are all lovely. And again, the children: it simply beggars belief how many marks they (and everyone else, to be fair) are expected to hit and how smoothly they do it.
This is theatremaking on a grand scale, all the way from the initial ambition to the flamboyant results.