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Review: Matilda The Musical

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Matilda, Roald Dahl’s 80’s classic about a unloved little girl who has a brilliant mind, is a kid’s book that pits intelligence against ignorance, creativity against conformity and upholds the library as the best place for child-rearing.

It’s also book that shows off Dahl’s wicked side, where terrible things happen to naughty children, and adults go through life deluded that their horrible off springs are the best things in the world.

So how would Tim Minchin - the guitar-toting stand-up behind the version of Matilda currently running at the Cambridge Theatre - manage to capture the adult aspects of Dahl’s tale, without losing any of its magic? From the opening scene that sees a chorus of precocious brats prance around a giant party table screaming: "My Mummy says I'm a miracle!", you see his answer: comedy.

This is not a production that takes itself too seriously. His Matilda is a storyteller, fiercely imaginative and intelligent. It helped that 11-year-old lead star Sophia Kiely, along with being a natural actress, is almost as dinky as the Quentin Blake illustration that graced my childhood paperback - the Matilda she presented was believable: clever, cunning and cross.

But she was not outshone. Her parents were hilariously despicable caricatures, loyally reminiscent of Dahl's original text, down to Mrs. Wormwood's 80s perm and Mr. Wormwood's check suit.

Villainous headmistress, Miss "The" Trunchball, was a shouty, quivering Bertie Carvel in drag. And she was brilliant, delivering gilded, girlish memories of her hammer-throwing Olympiad days alongside tripped-out ballads that muse on a world without children. Here was a Trunchball you could almost sympathise with, which made the suggestion that she was a murderer slightly unbelievable.

It was as good as all the reviews of the preview shows have claimed. Better than good: I was bent double in my seat, honking at comedic touches (Trunchball licking the air after Bruce Bogtrotter's classroom-shaking chocolate cake burp), welling up at beautifully written songs that describe Maltida searching for inner peace by "lying upside down in your bed", and seal-clapping at the words "smarting front-bottom" sung wistfully after Matilda’s birth.

It was, as it should be, thoroughly childish. A good job; sitting next to me my officially OAP father rocked with laughter at the sight of a man in drag with a fake newt in his knickers. It’s obvious that nobody ever really grows up.

And nor should they. Matilda was one of my childhood favourites, up there with Dick King-Smith's Sophie and Jane O'Connor's Fancy Nancy. Fierce, fun, naughty little girls. Clever little girls with ideas and a spirit of adventure. Little girls who, like Minchin's Matilda, pushed up their dress sleeves with determination and leaped onto their bookshelves, even if they enjoyed reading for pleasure or making things or looking after animals too. You can see why people uphold Dahl's Matilda as a feminist narrative - one which ends with two intelligent females living together after escaping a society that restricted them.

As Keily stood, telling a schmaltz-free story in the towering structure of a library, she was strong. Fiesty. And, as I'm sure children and adults alike were after such a performance, I was 8 again, and wishing I was as cool as Matilda.