Death by chocolate
Death by chocolate Jann Houley

MUST SEE: Which exciting musical is on everyone's lips?

It's a little bit like Annie, a tiny part Harry Potter-ish and, come this weekend, Matilda the Musical is all things Rocky as our younger talent brings the darkly mischievous musical adventure, winner of an unprecedented seven Olivier awards, to life on the Pilbeam Theatre stage.

RGS' Matilda the Musical
RGS' Matilda the Musical Jann Houley

And it's a stage unlike any you've seen before. The sets are so well thought out, so innovative I'm under strict instructions not to shoot photos wide, so as not to give away too many staging surprises. Suffice to say there are many moving parts which swing and slide, bang and clatter, and the whole lot is layered with texture and suffused in the warmest of light. Kudos too to the crew who manage to set and strike these sets with nary a curtain fall; the seamless transition from one scene to the next makes for a cracking pace.

The gorgeously grotesque Agatha Trunchbull (Wesley Muir) in RGS' Matilda the Musical at the Pilbeam
The gorgeously grotesque Agatha Trunchbull (Wesley Muir) in RGS' Matilda the Musical at the Pilbeam Jann Houley

There's nothing like adults behaving badly to bring out the best in children, and most of the grownups who inhabit Matilda's world are very bad indeed.

More credit, then, to the children who portray them so wholeheartedly.

Matilda's abhorrent parents make the Dursleys of Privet Drive seem warm and fuzzy in comparison. Harry Wormwood (Nick Smith) keeps up his misogynistic Cockney-esque patter throughout the show and his petulant, peroxided excuse for a wife Zinnia (Roxanne McDonald) gets her own star turn in an hilarious salsa trio with the legs-up-to-there Rudolpho (Benedict Wright).

Rudolpho (Benedict Wright) and Zinnia Wormwood (Roxanne McDonald) dance up a storm in Matilda
Rudolpho (Benedict Wright) and Zinnia Wormwood (Roxanne McDonald) dance up a storm in Matilda Jann Houley

But the real baddie in this fairytale is the headmaster Agatha Trunchbull (Wesley Muir) who hits the boards plain rotten and never redeems herself.

It's testament to Roald Dahl's twisted take on grownups - the same dynamic which we associate with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example - and also Tim Minchin's adaptation, that this character pushes the boundary between light fun and, at times, truly scary stuff.

Trunchbull is less Miss Hannigan and more Wicked Witch of the West as she literally tortures the school children entrusted to her care.

Muir is a standout in the role, inhabiting Trunchbull's loathsome, lurching frame so completely the audience will grow to hate 'her' with a vengeance.

Muir creates for her a wonderfully nuanced and steady voice which steers clear of camp and handles her singing parts admirably.

Standing up against the bad guys: Matilda at the Pilbeam
Standing up against the bad guys: Matilda at the Pilbeam Jann Houley

This grand grotesquerie, the workplace bully taken to extremes, is the perfect foil for the trio of sweethearts which lend Matilda its heart.

In the titular role, Ella Plumb is a cracker from the get go.

From her very first notes, the audience knows they're in for a consummate performance, and her energy doesn't drop one iota the whole show.

This is a show about children but it's not a childish show; Minchin's lyrics are complex and quick and it's a remarkable feat for all the leads in this production to keep up with the orchestration and get the message across at the same time.

Matilda is a heroine of a familiar ilk - oppressed, contemptuous of adult hypocrisy and willing to stick her neck out for the underdog - so it's easy to go along for the ride and forget that, behind the role, is a teenage girl who has to carry the show with her ceaseless, athletic energy.

Nick Smith nails a comic turn as Harry Wormwood in Matilda
Nick Smith nails a comic turn as Harry Wormwood in Matilda Jann Houley

Her kindly teacher counterpart, Jennifer Honey (Ella Kibblewhite-Claus) will knock you out with her very first belt.

Her first, plaintive solo heralds some gorgeous work to come, and blends beautifully with Matilda's in the duo numbers.

Hers is a more sedate role, physically, but her voice underpins the real tragedy of the story. Listen carefully to how many times Miss Honey sings or says the word 'pathetic' and the message of Matilda becomes crystal clear: self-interested parents who fail to inspire self-worth in their kids produce the next generation of adults who have trouble making meaningful connections.

A touching moment between the Escapologist (Benedict Wright) and Matilda (Ella Plumb)
A touching moment between the Escapologist (Benedict Wright) and Matilda (Ella Plumb) Jann Houley

One of the ways Matilda compensates for her dreary upbringing is to concoct fabulous stories around her 'real' parents, and it's the kindly librarian (Paige Baker) who provides her with a safe space to let her imagination soar.

These scenes are among the loveliest orchestral moments in the show as its bold brassy verve gives way to the music box sounds which herald Matilda's wanting nothing more than to be a child worth wanting. There's also a particularly fine piece of visual magic in one of the these scenes I'm sworn not to reveal upon pain of the choky...

The lovely Miss Honey (Ella Kibblewhite-Claus) stands up for the school kids in Matilda
The lovely Miss Honey (Ella Kibblewhite-Claus) stands up for the school kids in Matilda Jann Houley

One of the themes that make Matilda an unmissable fable for children of all ages is its adoration of all things literary.

Young Matilda is, above all, a reader and it's her parents' contempt for her reading which drives their cruellest moments.

Dahl roundly points to TV addiction as the real culprit here - who knows what he'd make of today's social media obsession? - and a lot of the humour comes from utterances such as "looks are more important than books”. In her championing of Matilda's love of reading and storytelling, Mrs Phelps is the first respite for Matilda's battered ego. Given this musical is directed by in indefatigable women who spent as many years in charge of a school library as she did directing musical theatre, it is fitting the hero librarian rounds out the balance between evil - VERY evil - and lovely, which encourages the audience to pick sides. If your child hasn't yet read Dahl's classic, then they will certainly want to after the show.

Matilda mayhem at the Pibeam
Matilda mayhem at the Pibeam Jann Houley

If there was one thing missing during the tech run I saw, it was just that - the audience.

This is a show which demands a witness.

In the tradition of good ol' pantomime, I wanted to boo and hiss at Trunchbull, jeer at the hapless father and cheer on the chorus of kids who lend collective to Matilda as she battles her demons with a combination of magic and sheer bravado.

I hope as many locals as possible will take themselves and their families to see Matilda because the RGS kids deserve to hear the audience hollering approval right back at them. In particular, the penultimate scene's rock anthem should get them out their seats.

Bruce (Fynn Moran) channels his inner rock god in Matilda
Bruce (Fynn Moran) channels his inner rock god in Matilda Jann Houley

The chorus of are well schooled, pardon the pun, in the arts of diction and projection, meaning all those clever quick lines can be clearly heard throughout the auditorium.

It is testament to the raft of talent in Central Queensland that the chorus members are switched on from the moment their sneakers hit the stage until the lights go down at the end of night.

Mrs Phelps (Paige Baker) loves all things literary in Matilda the Musical
Mrs Phelps (Paige Baker) loves all things literary in Matilda the Musical Jann Houley

The Rockhampton Grammar School has a longheld reputation of producing fine musical theatre, with many of its alumni going on to professional careers on bigger stages.

It's outdone itself with this, CQ's first taste of Matilda, I believe.

As a relatively new show, it doesn't come weighed down with a heap of cliches and expectations.

These kids get to tell this story, their story, their way and they do it with an enormous blast of energy which belies just how precise a treatment these very canny lyrics need in order to be heard and understood. It's a tremendous balancing act which should keep the audience abuzz long after they've exited the theatre.

RGS' Matilda the Musical

- Pilbeam Theatre cnr Victoria Parade and Cambridge St, Rockhampton

- Saturday, 10 August 2019 | 01:00 PM

- Saturday, 10 August 2019 | 07:00 PM

- Sunday, 11 August 2019 | 01:00 PM

- Tickets via seeitlive.com or at the box office



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