Matilda Jr

When the RSC’s delicious musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s equally delicious original creation transferred to the Cambridge Theatre in October 2011, I attended one of the first previews, and sensed – as we all did – that we were in the presence of something very special. The fact that this original production remains resident at the Cambridge to this day, suggests that our senses hadn’t been deceiving us, and I’m not the only person who’s made a number of return visits, revelling every time in Denis Kelly’s skilful book, and Tim Minchin’s irresistible music and lyrics. It’s a show that transcends the generations, adults and children alike responding not only to the tale it tells, but to the many surprising layers that combine to tell it.

Given the show’s huge success and ongoing popularity, it’s hardly surprising that there should now be an official “Junior” version, tailored for, and performed by, a young cast. And who better to serve it to us locally than Spot On Productions’ Youth Section, delivering another slick, professional and altogether joyous evening. This new performing edition of the show omits certain songs and scenes, but does so in such a way that their loss never feels in any way jarring, and it comes in at just under two packed hours!

I attended the performance on Friday evening, in which the “Blue” team performed (there’s a certain amount of double-casting in the production, reflecting the size of the company and the impressive array of young talent). Heading the company, Esme Lang’s performance in the title role was simply flawless, by turns amusing, grave, concentrated, and heart-catching. No less heart-catching was the performance of Hattie Funnell as Miss Honey, whose rendition of ‘My House’ was every bit as beautiful as that lovely song, and the delicate direction of the number and the scene involving both Hattie and Esme combined to make it one of the sweetest moments I’ve seen on any stage this year.

The role of the appalling Miss Trunchbull in this musical adaptation is, traditionally, played by a man, and Spot On has happily opted to continue the tradition. This is no “travesti” role, but a character played very much for real, and Jayden Pettyfer scored a triumph, all the funnier (and ominous) for playing it absolutely straight. As the equally appalling Wormwoods, the hilarious yet entirely irresponsible parents from hell, Liv Harder and Erica Whittlestone raked in some great laughs from the crowd, and equally hilarious was Cohen Bates as their son Michael, whose perfectly timed one-word utterances became even funnier as the piece progressed. More great laughs (along with some very elegant dance moves) came courtesy of Scarlett Rixon as Rudolpho, Mrs Wormwood’s Tango partner.

Technically, the production was in marvellous shape, with a bright, attractive (and unobtrusively clever) set, enhanced by Matt Lemon’s complex and always effective lighting, and the sound design by Mark Bourne – balance throughout was perfect, with all lyrics coming through with pin sharpness. Heading the Team and the project overall, were Spot On’s regular trio of Alick Leech (Director), Martin Bennetts (Musical Director) and Abbie Jennings (Choreographer), three specialists whose combined work is always a guarantee of a high standard, and I’d venture to suggest that this is one of their most triumphant projects to date, slick, inventive and nuanced throughout.

Direction, always elegant and accurate, brought some genuine emotional touches to the piece (this is a show with “meat on the bone”!), while the songs and dance routines were executed with slickness, and so much energy that it was impossible not to be caught up in the spirit of it all.

I must mention Noah Clayton-Hart as Bruce, whose fronting of the glorious ‘Revolting Children’ brought cheers from the crowd….and I’d also like to mention the combined company work on what is, for me, the most captivating number in this captivating score: ‘When I Grow Up’. The lyrics are a child’s wish-list… while adults who hear them become, for a few minutes, children again, and perhaps a little misty-eyed. Well, I did. The company performance of the song – along with its spectacular reprise at the joyful surprise finale – quite simply made me the happiest I’ve been all week. In fact, this entire production made me the happiest I’ve been all week. That’s what good theatre can do for you. Thank you, Spot On. Five Stars from me.