For nearly two years, the fantasmagorical world of Matilda has intrigued Australian audiences after it opened in Sydney on 20th August 2015. The combination of Roald Dahl’s mastery of the written word, Dennis Kelly’s book, and Tim Minchin’s lyrical genius is worthy of the 13 Helpmann Awards Matilda boasts.
Insight into the imagination of a child is rarely afforded to a grown-up. Nostalgia and goosebumps set in during the song When I grow up reminding me of the importance of keeping the child-at-heart alive and being true to my dreams. Izellah Connelly performed the lead role on the last Friday matinee in Adelaide. Her diction was outstanding, and she exuded cheekiness and warmth. Ever the storyteller, she was vulnerable yet captivating with a lovely voice.
Matilda’s cruel parents were as charismatic as they were vulgar. Marika Aubrey (Mrs Wormwood) and Daniel Frederiksen (Mr Wormwood) displayed excellent comic timing whilst offering poor parenting advice such as “girls aren’t meant to read” and “reading stunts the brain and wears out the eyes.” They valued their eldest couch potato of a child and took for granted their special daughter who defied the struggles of neglect through escapism in her stories. As an avid reader, Matilda displayed an unusual maturity and extensive knowledge. She reminded me that the wisdom of children often goes unnoticed and that they crave love and affection.
Larger-than-life Miss Trunchbull, played by James Millar, embodied the authoritarian headmistress. Through her fearful presence, the ‘miracle’ children were quickly pulled into line. She antagonised and humiliated the children, and her pedagogy “To teach a child you have to break a child” was the polar opposite to Miss Honey’s approach of showing kindness and respect. Miss Honey’s connection with Matilda was moving and Lucy Maunder played the role with subtlety and sang purely.
The ensemble of children and adults were fantastic, and Peter Darling’s choreography was en pointe, furthermore commendable given an overwhelmingly young cast. Mrs Phelps, performed by Leah Lim in this matinee, was the friendly librarian and enthusiastic listener of Matilda’s stories. Her enthusiasm for Matilda reflected my own engagement with her storytelling.
There were seamless transitions with sets and vibrant costumes. The special effects, lighting and sound design allowed me to be immersed in the story, however, the thunder effect was a little too loud in the dress circle for my sensitive ears.
Spoiler Alert: Mr Wormwood broke the fourth wall at the start of Act 2. His song about the wonders of television, or Telly rather, was a clever audience interaction. His classic one-liner “Das ve doo da!” had me laughing out loud. Matilda’s Russian was impeccable and my Polish mother-in-law (who understands Russian) nodded, impressed. Further into Act 2, Adelaide Festival Theatre turned into a large Chokey (Miss Trunchbull’s punishment chamber) rendering all of the audience guilty of no foreseeable wrongdoing, “and that’s not right!” Standing up for injustice was a key theme in this show. Matilda preaches, “if you always take it on the chin and wear it nothing will change.” This is golden advice, even for adults.
It was wonderful to see Adelaide musicians in the orchestra, musically-directed by Peter Rutherford, then again any band featuring Rob Chenoweth has to be a winner. A show like this would not be possible without all of the people who work backstage. I was lucky enough to chat with Rob Chenoweth from the Orchestra and Kent Green from the Wardrobe Department:
Q and A with Kent
Me: Briefly describe your involvement in this production?
Kent: I was a dresser, primarily responsible for dressing Miss Trunchbull and Mr Wormwood, but I also assisted children, the ensemble, and threw a jacket on (at) Mrs Wormwood.
Me: That doesn’t sound very polite, throwing jackets. Speaking of impoliteness, do you think children really are revolting maggots?
Kent: Well… in the case of Matilda, the kids were sweet, occasionally rambunctious, very professional and pretty awe-inspiring!
Me: Indeed they were! What did you think you would grow up to be when you were their age?
Kent: I don’t really know… some kind of artist or inventor I think. I used to draw complicated mechanisms that did simple things… a bit like Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Me: And… Maurice in Beauty & the Beast. Now for the serious question, have you ever done anything to deserve Miss Trunchbull’s Chokey?
Kent: Possibly… going out for too much of a good time is kinda like self-imposed chokey (the next day!) The Trunchbull would be smirking, for sure.
Q and A with Rob
Me: Given your popularity within the jazz scene, how does it feel to play in the orchestra for a major musical?
Rob: I feel privileged that I had been asked to do it. I’ve only worked on a musical once before and that was for Chicago 20 years ago.
Me: How did you get the opportunity to be a part of this production?
Rob: Word-of-mouth. One of the Musical Directors, and there were 3 of them, put my name forward. I’d done a production with him once before. Essentially, a name gets put forward and this happened back in January, and I got the phone call. Musicians get hired differently to the performers who all audition for their roles. You get employed until you mess up and if bad word gets around the grapevine you don’t get asked again. I’m about to do another show for Todd McKenney with Georgie Parker called Duets at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
Me: Briefly describe your role in Matilda
Rob: I was second trumpet but was also involved in piccolo trumpet, Bb standard, and flugelhorn. I was swapping between 3 as did the other trumpets; the woodwinds also swapped instruments. My responsibility was to be there before the half-hour call, so if I had a 1.00pm matinee, I was there before 12.30pm. I warmed up and was ready. I also had to be on call for any extra rehearsals, but this was hardly ever asked. Once a schedule was locked in that was it. This was one of the best administration and management teams I’d worked for. The production was well run and so organised! They sent out music months ago and recordings and the rest of it. Normally, you get it 2 weeks before and you’re lucky to get a recording!
Me: So it must work really well with your teaching during the day?
Rob: It’s mostly evening work, and has always been a positive. Some of the year 12 students in the past have been allowed to sit in the pit to watch how the orchestral musician’s world operates. Our drummer in the pit is an ex-Marryatville student and one of the bass players needed a couple of shows off and his replacement was also an ex-Marryatville student.
Me: Do you think children really are revolting maggots?
Rob: Absolutely not (laughs). I’m very fortunate to work with great kids and I’m enjoying teaching more than ever. I teach a range of students from Marryatville to Woodville and Brighton, so it’s quite varied. I love it! They are beautiful, brilliant kids. I love working with kids and it’s great to see them go all the way with their music.
Me: I thought you would say that. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Rob: I always wanted to be, from way back, a professional musician. I had a great mentor named Ross Smith, who was doing the job I am doing now. He went above and beyond the call of duty; writing music and giving us an understanding of jazz. From about Year 8, at the beginning of my secondary schooling, I wanted this. I received performance opportunities through Ross when I was 18 and as green as I was, he pushed me in the right direction.
Me: Have you ever done anything to deserve Miss Trunchbull’s Chokey?
Rob: They had a studio under the stage that was purpose-built and has been travelling around Australia. Just outside that there was a big bowl of treats that we took turns buying for one another. I took too many of the fruchocs from the orchestral room.
Me: As far as sins go, that’s not really that bad Rob. It’s also very South Australian, the Fruchocs.
Rob: Yes, it is.
Thank you to Kent Green and Rob Chenoweth for their insight on all the magic that happens behind the scenes. Unfortunately, the Australian production has packed its bags and in order to see this spectacle you’ll have to book a ticket to our neighbours in Auckland, New Zealand. It would be a great excuse for a holiday.
Rating: ✩✩✩✩½ stars
Performance: matinee, Friday 14 July 2017
Venue: Adelaide Festival Theatre