First published on 27 Apr 2012. Updated on 3 May 2012.
London is the theatre capital of the world - but the West End sparkles with Broadway imports and we haven't made a great new musical since Billy Elliot. Rejoice, then, O citizens! The RSC's Matilda is the best British musical in years. And it's not just a kids' show.
Yes, it has a phenomenally brainy schoolgirl heroine. And yes, it should spark a lifetime love of theatre for a new generation of round-eyed show-goers. But, like War Horse, this is a moving and subtle spectacle which will have kids in stitches and adults in tears. It is guaranteed to delight anyone who's ever been a child.
There's so much talent here that it's hard to know where to start - or stop - with the praise. Director Matthew Warchus has cast a crack revolving team of unselfconscious child leads. When I saw it, Cleo Demetriou was the note-perfect heroine of what, essentially, is a nerd's revenge on the Philistines - nicely updated in Matilda's raucous 'Strictly'-channeling mum, dodgy dealing dad and butch PE-loving headmistress, Miss Trunchbull.
Tim Minchin's catchy, satirical music and lyrics include a couple of spot-on anthems for dumb Britain, like the number in which Matilda's mum (Josie Walker) recommends "less fact more feel" and "less brains more hair".
But this is one for telly-lovers too, despite its timely celebration of libraries and heroic literacy teachers. The secret of 'Matilda's appeal is the way it revels in everything, even cruelty to children: Miss Trunchbull's habit of hurling girls by their pigtails miles up into the sky is recreated with true Dahlian relish, in a heartstoppingly effective piece of stage magic. The decision to cast a man - Bertie Carvel, the most versatile character actor of his generation - as ex-hammer throwing Olympian Miss Trunchbull verges on genius.
In the subtlest drag act I've ever seen, Carvel makes La Trunchbull a prim, busty sadist - with massive butch biceps, huge hairy legs and a bun which defines repression. Luvvie scare-figure Mrs Thatcher hovers over this hammer-throwing Iron Lady, but it is a devastatingly original performance: the quiveringly precise elocution and ecstatic sense of disgust which Carvel brings to lines like: "Quiet, maggots, while I'm speaking" has to be heard to be believed.
Writer Dennis Kelly has enlarged Dahl's book brilliantly, making Matilda - like Billy Elliot - an upliftingly stageable story of collective rebellion. Instead of miners, we have the mini-heroes of Year 1, rocking out and fighting for their right to be 'a little bit naughty'.
Minchin gives his Revolting Children a fantastic hackle-raising finale - but subtle songs like 'When I Grow Up', staged beautifully on swings, ensure there's an achingly wistful conversation between childhood and adulthood along the way.
From Dahl to Rowling, British writers excel in creating spiky, magical fantasy worlds, in which children can seize power and adults can return, briefly, to innocence. Matilda brings one such world to life. It's smart, quirky and sublimely good fun - and I can't wait to see it again.