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Upstaged by the scenery: Anna-Maria Nabirye as one of the witches and Rory Kinnear as Macbeth at the National Theatre (©Brinkhoff Mögenburg)


It has taken me five years to return to Matilda, which is about as long as a critic with an aversion to being hectored about why children are better than adults can hold out before acknowledging a palpable hit.

The small genius, her ghastly parents and her encounter with Miss Trunchbull at Crunchem Hall have delighted and terrified audiences in the West End and Broadway since Dennis Kelly’s adaptation and Tim Minchin’s saucy lyrics first enriched Roald Dahl’s peppery novel of intergenerational strife.

Now the Crunchem troupe is embarking on a UK and Ireland tour, the sign of true longevity in a musical being that you can’t escape it. Popular song-driven theatre with such durability is always an intriguing insight into the moods and modes of the time, and in this case Matilda bottles the views of two different, bookish elites of the masses. Dahl was a humungous snob and never more so than in Matilda, where the Del Boy dad is a naff car salesman. Dahl, writing in 1988, is as opposed to “trade” as Lady Bracknell ever was a century before. His missus talks common and commits the heinous crime of enjoying dancing and shiny-floor shows. Matilda’s bookishness is a well-paraded sign of her virtue and “telly” the lurking enemy of civilisation.

Oh, what days of pre-Facebook innocence, when the worst you could say of the lower orders was that they enjoyed “watching famous people talking to really famous people”. Still, it’s hard not to raise a chuckle at the “All I know, I know from telly” song and its conclusion: “What you know matters much less/than the volume with which what you don’t know is expressed . . .” That insight does not date.

For all the show’s tendency to tell us off for not reading books and watching ITV, it is, of course, the entertainment we’re all paying a fair whack for. Kris Manier as the lanky entertainer shimmies and swings, Marianne Benedict as Matilda’s Dancing Queen mum stomps her routines with gusto, and Tom Edden is the clumsy grotesque dad on the run from Russian hit squads (when that was funny). They are much more enjoyable than watching the perfect teacher Miss Honey singing elevating numbers about child protection.

The production is certainly a testament to the ability of Britain to churn out small actresses with big chest voices. Four Matildas now share the role, a theatrical cloning that is a feat of management when you remember what dealing with one eight-year-old is like.

The entire show looks set to clone itself in perpetuity, with a Korean-language version opening in the autumn, the first of doubtless several foreign-language franchises.
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