Matilda: The Musical
Until April 27
What Girls are Made Of
Touring until June 8
Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh
Touring until June 8
By MARK BROWN
Those who have been eagerly awaiting the Edinburgh residency of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s hit show Matilda: The Musical will not be disappointed. This staging of Roald Dahl’s story about the neglected-but-brilliant heroine Matilda Wormwood lives up to the hype entirely.
From the opening scene, in which pampered children at a birthday party sing such boastful lines as “my mummy says I’m a miracle”, it’s clear that we’re in for a treat. Tim Minchin’s lyrics are as bold and funny as Dahl’s gloriously exaggerated writing, his music as bright and memorable.
The show that follows is close to perfect in evoking the garish comedy, the pathos and the solidarity with children that make Dahl’s book such a success. Matilda, played with super-confident excellence on Monday evening by Freya Scott (one of four young actors performing the title role in Edinburgh), is beautifully balanced between pitiful emotional abuse and heroic, clever resilience.
Her appalling parents (Rebecca Thornhill and Sebastien Torkia on tremendously ghastly form) are a Technicolor nightmare. Torkia, in particular, renders dodgy, green-suited second hand car dealer Mr Wormwood with more than a touch of the obsequiousness and underlying nastiness of Eric Idle’s Monty Python creations.
Elliot Harper is even more outrageous as the fearful, fascistic headmistress (and former Olympic hammer thrower) Miss Trunchbull. Thank goodness Matilda and her sympathetic teacher Miss Honey (the superb Carly Thoms) are there to stop the dictatorial schoolmarm’s reign of terror.
It’s more than eight years since this RSC production began its life in Stratford-upon-Avon. In that time it has become a well-honed, lavishly resourced stage musical.
There has, obviously, been a great emphasis placed on achieving top notch production values and the casting of dozens of highly talented youngsters (for both this tour and the on-going production in the West End of London). Crucially, however, the show has maintained its lightness of touch, its humour and its humanity. It is, in short, family theatre at its very best.
There’s musical theatre of a very different kind in Cora Bissett’s What Girls Are Made Of. A roaring success at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, this autobiographical play with songs has been revived for a tour that takes in, not only Scottish cities and towns, but also Northern Ireland, Brazil and the United States.
The show is performed with extraordinary charm, energy and panache by Bissett herself. There is fine, often hilarious, support from actor-musicians Simon Donaldson and Harry Ward (an excellent replacement for Grant O’Rourke, who was outstanding in the original production) and theatre musician Susan Bear.
Directed by erstwhile Traverse Theatre Company artistic director Orla O’Loughlin, Bissett tells the story of her Fife upbringing and of her more than 15 minutes of fame in the briefly successful rock band Darlingheart. With live renditions of numbers by, not only Bissett’s erstwhile group, but also its influences, such as The Pixies and PJ Harvey, this gig-cum-memoir is guaranteed a strong soundtrack. Moreover, the multi-talented and mercurial Bissett (an actor, director and writer who is now an associate director with the National Theatre of Scotland) still has what it takes as a vocalist.
We move, by way of skulduggery (on the part of Darlingheart’s devious manager Dirk Devine) and naivety (on the part of the teenage Bissett), beyond the writer-actor’s adventures in rock music into altogether more weighty, personal matters. The last half-hour of the 90-minute show turns to face terrible familial and personal tragedies.
Bissett approaches the subjects with a disarming and touching honesty and humour. As last August in Edinburgh, the piece feels almost as if it is two plays, rather than one, such is the considerable shift in tone when the story changes tack.
That said, there isn’t a moment here that doesn’t ring with heartbreaking and uplifting truth, and it’s all delivered with Bissett’s irresistible virtuosity and charisma.
One-man show Achilles, performed for his Glasgow-based Company of Wolves by Ewan Downie, is another deserved revival. Touring Scotland, Wales and England, this latest outing for the telling, in words and movement, of the story of the titular Greek warrior at the siege of Troy, seems even sharper, more carefully honed than its impressive 2018 incarnation.
Downie’s vivid, Homeric speech and vigorously articulate movement give evocative expression to the apprehension of the Trojans and the brutal realities of battle. In the moment that Achilles hears news of the death of his precious friend Patroclus, Downie expresses the warrior’s emotional agony in a powerful, anguished, writhing movement accompanied by his poignant, plaintive singing of an Ancient Greek lament.
If there has been a more concerted attempt by a Scottish theatre company to embed the aesthetics and methods of the Polish theatre master Jerzy Grotowski in our national theatre culture, I am not aware of it. As Achilles attests, it is a laudable project.
For tour dates for What Girls are Made Of, visit: rawmaterialarts.com
For tour dates for Achilles, visit: companyofwolves.org.uk
These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday on April 14, 2019
© Mark Brown