Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (review) – a high-spirited and cathartic romp


Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical arrives in UK cinemas on November 25th.

The only thing longer than Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical’s unwieldy title is the shadow that it stands in. Danny DeVito’s 1996 adaptation of Dahl’s novel made the risky but worthwhile choice of setting the story in the US. He succeeded in establishing a tone distinct from the source material while remaining faithful to the story’s spirit of an extraordinarily clever young girl who overcomes adversity through the unlikely combination of a love of books and her manifesting telekinetic powers.

While not a major box office success, DeVito’s Matilda found its natural habitat on VHS and proceeded to thread itself into the DNA of its audience. To the bookish millennials of the world, Matilda isn’t so much a cultural touchstone as a basic law of the universe, like Planck’s constant or the speed of light.

Working Title and Tri-Star’s adaptation of the RSC musical sees the show’s original director, Matthew Warchus, return to direct. Past instances of directors of successful musicals taking on film adaptations have resulted in movies like Everybody’s Talking About Jamie or the 2004 adaptation of the Producers, where there’s a visible struggle to deliver the same impact that the show had on stage. However, this is not the case for Warchus. Having proved himself a capable pair of hands with Pride, he directs the film with the confidence and panache that comes from having both a secure grasp of the source material and the requirements of the medium.


The film maximises the stage production’s greatest strengths. There’s a perfect balance of story and spectacle in retaining the audience’s focus. Composer and lyricist Tim Minchin could hardly be accused of being ignorant of his own wit as a songwriter. As self-consciously clever as his lyrics are, I still gasped with delight the first time the lyrical conceit of the first song sung by the miserable students on Matilda’s first day at Crunchem Hall revealed itself on stage. I can only imagine that other first-time viewers will do the same through the medium of film.

But the strongest songs go straight for the emotional jugular without any verbal pirouetting or posturing. For example, When I Grow Up is an ensemble number where the kids sing about their hopes for the future with all the naivety of childhood. As an adult, you watch knowing that the very children performing it will one day return to the song, or at least the sentiment behind it, with an entirely different perspective.

However, along with its strengths, the film also inherits some of the stage show’s weaknesses. Perhaps surprisingly, one of those weaknesses is Matilda herself. The combination of her staggering intellect and the hostile indifference she’s faced from her parents has made her fiercely independent. But after plating up all the other elements and set-pieces in the film, there isn’t much space left to show her breaking down her defences and forming connections with those around her. The question of how best to incorporate Matilda into her own story seems to have been an issue from the musical’s inception. According to writer Dennis Kelly in his 2021 Guardian interview, early ideas included having Matilda played by a puppet or by the only child actor in an otherwise entirely adult cast. 

Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical. Alisha Weir as Matilda Wormwood in Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical. Sony Pictures U.K. will release Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical across the UK & Ireland exclusively in cinemas on November 25th 2022

None of this is a reflection on Alisha Weir, who sings her songs with gusto while giving us a Matilda with a reserved but powerful sense of conviction. This issue with Matilda’s characterisation would be challenging even for an adult actor to overcome, but the supporting players surrounding her provide more than adequate compensation. I lost pace long ago with the Bond franchise, so I can’t speak for Lashana Lynch’s performance in No Time to Die, but seeing her for the first time, she’s nothing short of a revelation. As Matilda’s kind-hearted teacher, Miss Honey, she positively radiates the love she so sorely missed in her own childhood. 

On the more overtly comedic side, Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough are clearly both having the time of their lives as Matilda’s risible parents. The film makes explicit the 1980s setting only vaguely implied by the source material, paving the way for these two to strut onto the scene like the physical embodiment of every Essex stereotype codified in that decade. Eagle-eyed viewers will catch plenty of small period details, from a newborn baby photographed with an Instamatic to one of Matilda’s classmates attempting telekinesis on a vintage can of Irn Bru. 


By far, however, it is The Trunchbull who is the film’s most striking component. What made her such an enduring villain is that her vices are often replicated in real-world tyrants. In 2018, the village of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, the basis for the novel’s original setting, displayed a sculpture of Matilda facing off against Donald Trump. For all the inherent bombast of playing a villain who bursts into song, Emma Thompson brings a cold, calloused quality to The Trunchbull that grounds the character. And yet, even with her sense of unchallenged superiority, she is nothing more than a bully and a cheat. This makes it all the more cathartic to watch Matilda and her classmates fight back with whatever means they have at their disposal. 

While it doesn’t quite have the strong character work found in the DeVito adaptation, Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is a high-spirited and cathartic romp with plenty to entice old and young audiences alike.

  • Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical (2022)


While it doesn’t quite have the strong character work found in the DeVito adaptation, Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is a high-spirited and cathartic romp with plenty to entice old and young audiences alike.

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